PSL playoffs preview: How teams battle the squad shuffle could decide PSL winner

It's an opportunity for three of the four teams to reach their maiden PSL final

Moeen Ali is bowled, Lahore Qalandars v Multan Sultans, PSL 2020, Lahore, March 15, 2020

The final rounds of PSL group games were played without fans  •  AFP

Despite the explosion of T20 leagues around the world over the past decade, what takes place over the next few days in Karachi will be unique. Eight months after the PSL was called off abruptly on the day of the semi-finals due to a possible Covid-19 outbreak, the league is back to finish what it started off in February. A world away from the heaving crowds that greeted the PSL's complete return to Pakistan, the conclusion will be played out to an empty National Stadium under strict bio-secure conditions.
But this isn't just a box to be ticked, there is history at stake for each of the four playoff competitors. With the historically successful Islamabad United and Quetta Gladiators, the two most successful sides in the tournament's history, out, there's glory up for grabs for four teams, three of whom have never so much been in a PSL final. Lahore get their first taste of PSL playoff action when they take on Peshawar Zalmi in an eliminator; the latter are the most established remaining team in the league. At the top end, Multan Sultans, who were, by some distance, the best team in the group stages, take on Karachi Kings, who will eye a golden opportunity to seal a title at their home venue. We look at each of the four teams, and how they shape up ahead of Saturday.
Multan Sultans
It's third time lucky for Shan Masood's side, who, like Lahore, have never been involved at this stage of the competition before. But they didn't just squeeze into the last four, they barged through as trailblazers, and, without the extended break, were hot favourites to storm to the title. The hiring of Nathan Leamon as Director of Strategy was followed by the franchise's public declaration that data would drive decision-making, and that appears to have helped. They were the only side to win six games in the group stage, and the first to seal safe passage to the last four.
Imran Tahir and Sohail Tanvir were near the top of the wickets charts while maintaining economy rates below eight, while a lethal combination of big hitters and accumulators with the bat made the franchise a fearsome force to be reckoned with. Masood provided solidity at the top while each of Rilee Rossouw, Khushdil Shah, Zeeshan Ashraf and James Vince played match-winning innings in separate matches, distributing the workload amongst the team while relieving pressure on individuals. Throw in Moeen Ali, who chipped in with both runs and wickets, and it was hard to see any weaknesses oppositions could target.
But all that's changed now. Multan have been the hardest hit in terms of player availability, with travel restrictions and Covid-19 all taking their toll on the side. Vince, Fabian Allen and Moeen will be unavailable to them, while Mahmudullah, a replacement for Moeen, was also ruled out because he tested positive for Covid-19. Adam Lyth, Joe Denly and Brendan Taylor have been brought in as replacements, with Multan hoping they can help the side pick up where they left off in March.
Squad: Shan Masood (c), Adam Lyth (England), Ali Shafiq, Bilawal Bhatti, Brendan Taylor (Zimbabwe), Imran Tahir (South Africa), Joe Denly (England), Junaid Khan, Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Ilyas, Mohammad Irfan, Ravi Bopara (England), Rilee Rossouw (South Africa), Rohail Nazir, Shahid Afridi, Sohail Tanvir, Usman Qadir and Zeeshan Ashraf
Peshawar Zalmi
Zalmi can claim the most high-profile new signing for the playoffs, bringing in South African captain Faf du Plessis in what was marketed as a bit of a coup for the franchise. However, they're not without their setbacks either, with the absence of Kieron Pollard, who just recently helped his IPL side Mumbai Indians to yet another title, likely to be keenly felt. Tom Banton might have had a season to forget, but the absence of his explosive potential at the top will be missed, as will the leadership qualities of the charismatic Daren Sammy, who is unavailable for logistical reasons. Most of the replacements are local, with Sohaib Maqsood, so instrumental to Southern Punjab's run to the final in the recently concluded National T20 Cup, the highest-profile one. Hardus Viljoen, Khurram Shehzad and Saqib Mahmood are the other inclusions.
It's been an up-and-down season for Peshawar Zalmi, who only crept into the last four due to a better run-rate than Quetta Gladiators, ending the group stages with a negative win-loss ratio for the first time in their history. It was also their lowest group stage finish; in all but one of the first four seasons, Peshawar Zalmi have found themselves perched at the top come playoff time. They do, however, boast some of the most coveted PSL assets, with captain Wahab Riaz the third-highest wicket-taker this season. Hasan Ali, too, was instrumental, which makes his absence due to injury all the more dispiriting. Kamran Akmal, meanwhile, is now PSL royalty, and was on top of his game this season, too, with 251 runs at a strike rate of 162.
Haider Ali's stock, meanwhile, has risen since a promising start to his PSL career earlier this year, while Carlos Brathwaite, Liam Livingstone and Shoaib Malik are decent enough players to have in one's ranks. Whether they're good enough to win T20 competitions, though, is very much up for grabs, and if Peshawar are to ensure they don't fall at the first hurdle to Lahore Qalandars, they will perhaps need some of their stalwarts to come to the party in a big way.
Squad: Wahab Riaz (c), Aamir Ali, Adil Amin, Carlos Brathwaite (West Indies), Faf du Plessis (South Africa), Haider Ali, Hardus Viljoen (South Africa), Imam-ul-Haq, Kamran Akmal, Khurram Shehzad, Mohammad Imran, Mohammad Mohsin, Rahat Ali, Saqib Mahmood, Shoaib Malik, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Amin and Yasir Shah
Lahore Qalandars
After spending four hard years sitting at bottom, Lahore Qalandars finally turned a corner, making it into the play-offs for the first time. They have long struggled to make a mark in the PSL, never getting past the group stage and often finishing last. They started horrendously this season too, losing four out of first five games but turned their fortune around remarkably, winning four out of the final five pool games to end the jinx. Things fell into place for them this year with a settled captain in Sohail Akhtar, and relying on players from their own player development programme has appeared to pay dividends.
They were helped by some devastating performances by their two Australian players in Ben Dunk and Chris Lynn. Dunk was the breakout player for them, amassing 247 runs in his last four knocks at an average of 123.50 and a strike rate of 226.61. The momentum might have been lost somewhat with an 8 month gap but Qalandars feel confident they can keep the run going. Lynn's absence will, no doubt, be a huge setback, but in Tamim Iqbal, they have an able replacement, and haven't been hit as badly as some others by player absences.
The most encouraging sign for Qalandars is the form of their key players. Age does not seem to be dimming Mohammad Hafeez's ability, while the most high-profile recruit from their player development programme Haris Rauf is in the form of his life, and an established member of the Pakistan T20 side. Shaheen Afridi is the country's leading fast bowler in every format, and one of the best fast bowlers in the world by now. Whisper it, but Lahore might be in a position to go all the way here.
Squad: Sohail Akhtar (c), Tamim Iqbal (Bangladesh), Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Hafeez, David Wiese (South Africa), Shaheen Shah Afridi, Usman Shinwari, Samit Patel (England), Haris Rauf, Salman Irshad, Ben Dunk (Australia), Farzan Raja, Jaahid Ali, Abid Ali, Mohammad Faizan, Maaz Khan, Dane Vilas (South Africa) and Dilbar Hussain
Karachi Kings
Karachi Kings may have the privilege of playing at home, but their 2020 campaign will forever be tinged with significant poignance. Head coach Dean Jones guided the side to a second place finish, their highest in PSL history, but in a tragic twist of fate, won't be around to see the job through, after he died of a heart attack on September 25. Team president Wasim Akram will take on the management role for the side, whose defining feature has been the strength at the top of the order. Power-hitter Sharjeel Khan is paired with Babar Azam, the highest run-getter in PSL history, as well as the leading runscorer this season, with 345 runs at 49.28.
It was a Karachi Kings player in Alex Hales who was believed to have contracted Covid-19 in March, which necessitated the postponement of the playoffs. He never ended up getting a test, though he later said he was severely symptomatic and "99% sure" he had the virus. He is set to return for the tournament once more, and set to play a key role at the top of the order for Imad Wasim's side. But it is the absence of another English player, death bowler Chris Jordan, that may hurt the side; he is due to take part in England's T20I series in South Africa. As such, Mohammad Amir, who has fallen out of favour at the national level, will have to take on increased responsibility, and perhaps even stake in T20 claims with a standout performance here.
A player whose stock has soared since the postponement is Karachi Kings wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan. He wasn't even the first-choice keeper for Karachi, with Chadwick Walton playing most games in the group stage, but has since become an all-format regular for Pakistan, and expected to feature heavily over the next few days. Imad Wasim, too, will have to take on responsibility with the ball at the top of the innings, while young left arm spinner Umer Khan may once again prove a key player for the home side.
Squad: Imad Wasim (c), Aamer Yamin, Alex Hales (England), Arshad Iqbal, Awais Zia, Babar Azam, Cameron Delport (South Africa), Chadwick Walton (West Indies), Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Rizwan, Sharjeel Khan, Sherfane Rutherford (West Indies), Umaid Asif, Umer Khan, Usama Mir, Waqas Maqsood and Wayne Parnell (South Africa)
GMT 0700 Salman Irshad has replaced Agha Salman (ankle injury) in the Lahore Qalandars squad.