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PSL 2021 preview – Sultans look strong United have history on their side and gladiators look promising

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Barely three months after Imad Wasim crossed a line to win the Karachi Kings their inaugural PSL title, it all started again. Everyone in Pakistan cricket is hoping it will be a continuous season, uninterrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw last year’s edition split into two parts. For the first time in nearly a year, there will be crowds at the venues, up to 20% capacity. After a star-studded draft that many feared would be missing due to the pandemic, the lucky few who are at the venues are expected to be on for a few fascinating weeks of T20 franchise cricket.

Here’s the first part of our two-part team-by-team preview of the tournament.

Multan SultansTeam overview: The hiatus imposed by Covid-19 didn’t seem to do the Sultans much good last year. After a group stage, where Shan Masood’s side swept everything before them on their way to the top of the standings comfortably, the wheels came off in the playoffs eight months later. They failed to beat the Karachi Kings and Lahore Qalandars at this point in the tournament, which knocked them out of the tournament heading into the final.

But that doesn’t mean the southern side of Punjab is less of a threat this time around. The acquisition of Mohammad Rizwan – also named their new captain – appears to be a particularly valuable deal, with the wicket-beater keeper among the top T20 assets in Pakistan today. Additionally, the retention of a senior core who has delivered year after year – Rilee Rossouw, Sohail Tanvir, Imran Tahir and Shahid Afridi – makes the squad prime candidates to once again dominate the group stages. This can be achieved if they continue to prioritize analytics-based decision making, which they did publicly last year with the hiring of Andy Flower and Nathan Leamon.

But the Sultans remain the only team yet to reach the PSL final, and after doing the hard work that seemed to pay off last year, they will be eager to see him rewarded in the next five weeks of what should hopefully be an uninterrupted sixth PSL edition.

Strengths

A number of their players are better T20 cricketers than they were this time around last year, with Rizwan and legspinner Usman Qadir being good examples of that. Their legspin department is the strongest of all franchises, with three high quality leggies in their ranks: Tahir, Afridi and Qadir.

Weaknesses

With Khushdil Shah losing form, there is a lot of pressure on Chris Lynn to continue his heroic BBLs with a solid run in PSL as well. There is also a lack of powerful hitters in the camp, especially with the departure of Zeeshan Ashraf. No star attraction of fast bowling. Tanvir, Imran Khan and Sohail Khan are more than capable of doing an outstanding job, but on faster shots the loss of Mohammad Ilyas in the draft could be felt.

Squad: Mohammad Rizwan (captain), Shahid Afridi, Imran Tahir, James Vince, Khushdil Shah, Rilee Rossouw, Shan Masood, Sohail Tanvir, Usman Qadir, Chris Lynn, Sohail Khan, Carlos Brathwaite, Sohaib Maqsood, Sohaib Ullah, Adam Lyth, Shahnawaz Dhani, Muhammad Umar, Imran Khan Sr

Islamabad has won PSL twice – first in 2016 and then in 2018 Getty Images

Islamabad UnitedTeam preview: The team that won the inaugural title in 2016 and became the first team to win the trophy twice in their triumph in 2018, United have for the longest time been associated with the success of ‘a way other teams aspired to. The pioneering approach to data and the way the franchise used analytics was, in the conservative Pakistani thought world T20, hardly revolutionary. It was also a philosophy and a model that others – notably the sultans – attempted to emulate. Add to that the fact that this squad has a core of young Pakistani players who became mainstays of the national team as United were the closest to a top-notch squad PSL could boast of.

Much of that unbeaten run was lost in the midst of the disastrous 2020 campaign, where they became the first team other than the Qalandars to finish at the bottom of the stack. Shadab Khan’s side have managed just three out of ten wins in a campaign where rain has taken its toll with several of their matches. A solid draft, where the acquisition of Hasan Ali – whose star has only grown since then – has been the most exciting, suggests they have the squad to face each other at the top of the table again. But other parties have caught up with them, and it is up to the United States to prove that they have the quality and the ingenuity to pull out of the pack once again.

Strengths

With Alex Hales back by their side, the two-time champions have signed arguably the fittest T20 batsman in the world. At BBL, Hales scored 543 points with an average of 38.78 and a strike rate of 161.60. Two key local players, Hasan and Faheem Ashraf, are in the best shape of their careers.

Weaknesses

The United States has been hit harder by the late withdrawals than any other party. Colin Munro’s loss at the top means his replacement Paul Stirling has huge boots to fill. The absence of Dawid Malan would also be keenly felt. A thigh injury prevented Captain Shadab from being absent for two months, so there could be some rust on his return. A number of their core team members have wrestled internationally in recent times, including Hussain Talat, Asif Ali and Iftikhar Ahmed.

Squad: Shadab Khan (captain), Alex Hales, Asif Ali, Fawad Ahmed, Faheem Ashraf, Hussain Talat, Musa Khan, Zafar Gohar, Hassan Ali, Paul Stirling, Lewis Gregory, Phil Salt, Rohail Nazir, Ali Khan, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Wasim Jr, Ahmed Saifi Abdullah, Akif Javed

Gladiators have youngest team in PSL 2021, with nine players under 23 PCB

Introducing Quetta GladiatorsTeam: It was the cheapest PSL franchise offered when the tournament was announced in 2016, but you couldn’t get more value for your money anywhere else in the league. The fact that the franchise takes its name from a city not exactly known to be a cricket powerhouse in Pakistan hasn’t held them back, with the Gladiators having played in three PSL finals so far. Until a shock last year – which the side has attributed somewhat controversially to an unfavorable dating schedule – they have always operated with clinical efficiency.

This year, the Gladiators could also be the funniest side to follow. They are the youngest in the competition by far, with nine players under 23. To balance that out, they added the persistent Chris Gayle and the crafty Dale Steyn to their roster, increasing the experience without compromising the entertainment value. While this one looks like a somewhat different side of the Gladiators than fans might be used to, and while there are some other franchises that have a better reputation for smart T20 cricket, they generally have the more balanced T20 teams and the most balanced.

There’s a side familiarity rarely seen among T20 franchises. Sarfaraz Ahmed has been their captain since its inception, while young players like Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Hasnain and Azam Khan have been around for several seasons, the last two should see years of breakout. With new international recruits like Tom Banton and Faf du Plessis added to the mix, the Gladiators appear to have retained their identity without allowing stagnation.

Strengths

There’s a lot of powerful punching ability in the ranks: Banton, Azam, Gayle, and Cameron Delport can all punch big. All the bases are effectively covered. There is an anchor like du Plessis, fast bowling players in Naseem Shah and Steyn, quality spinners in Qais Ahmed and Zahid Mahmood, and sewing and spin-bowling allrounders in Ben Cutting and Nawaz.

Weaknesses

Perhaps the Gladiators trust young players a little too much. Naseem Shah and Azam still haven’t done their best, while Banton has struggled in the PSL. The loss of Shane Watson and Jason Roy, two of PSL’s greatest hits, could be felt.

Squad: Sarfaraz Ahmed (captain), Anwar Ali, Azam Khan, Ben Cutting, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Nawaz, Naseem Shah, Zahid Mahmood, Chris Gayle, Dale Steyn, Tom Banton, Usman Khan Shinwari, Cameron Delport, Qais Ahmad, Abdul Nasir , Saim Ayub, Arish Ali Khan, Usman Khan, Faf du Plessis

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ Danny61000

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