Islamabad, Pakistan – When Dubai and Abu Dhabi hosted the first edition of the six-team Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket tournament in 2016, the country was a pariah in international cricket.
Barring Zimbabwe, no foreign team had visited the country since 2009, when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by armed men in Lahore.
Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was forced to make the United Arab Emirates (UAE) its home away from home. A generation of Pakistani players started and ended their careers without ever playing a single international game in front of a home crowd.
Moreover, longstanding tensions with neighbouring cricket powerhouse India meant Pakistani players were shunned from the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s biggest Twenty20 tournament, without any formal announcement of a ban on them.
The Pakistani cricket team’s on-field performance in white ball cricket also needed much to be desired.
Meanwhile, international cricket is slowly returning to Pakistan, with the country playing host to two of the “Big Three” – England and Australia – last year after last hosting them in 2005 and 1998, respectively. India remain the only big team who have not played against Pakistan in a bilateral series for a decade.
However, with seven wildly successful editions under its belt, the PSL could arguably lay claim as not only the second-best T20 cricket league in the world but also the tournament which helped revive Pakistan’s cricketing fortunes.
As the eighth edition of the PSL begins on Monday, featuring defending champions Lahore Qalandars and last year’s runners-up Multan Sultans, it will be the first time the tournament, featuring 34 matches, will take place at four different venues in the country.
Pakistan was the dominant team in the 2021 T20 World Cup, where they won all five matches in the group stages before they were stunned by Australia in the semifinal. The following year, they made it to the final but were defeated by England.
Hassan Cheema, strategy manager for two-time PSL victors Islamabad United, told Al Jazeera the national team’s performance in the last two T20 World Cups is a testament to the PSL’s impact on the sport.
“Pakistan has a plethora of talent that allows it to compete with the best even with the structural disadvantages. The PSL allows some of that gap to be filled, enough for Pakistan to be competitive at the highest levels,” Cheema said.
The first two PSL editions featured five teams. Since 2018, it has been a six-team event, including Karachi Kings, Islamabad United, Peshawar Zalmi, Multan Sultans, Quetta Gladiators, and Lahore Qalandars. Lahore beat Multan to win the title last year.
Islamabad United are the only team to win the tournament twice (2016 and 2018), while Peshawar Zalmi have made it to the playoffs in every edition of the PSL. All six teams have managed to win the trophy at least once.
Quetta Gladiators, one of the most consistent teams in the first four editions of the tournament, have not made it to the playoffs since 2020.
Last year, Karachi Kings, the 2020 champions, ended up with the worst record in the tournament history’s, winning just one of the 10 matches.
With Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan set to host the games, this year’s tournament will be the first time that four of the six teams would boast support from a home crowd.
The tournament will be played over two legs, with the first 14 matches played in Multan and Karachi. The teams will then move to Lahore and Rawalpindi to play the rest of the games, with the final to be played on March 19 at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.
At least 36 players from 10 different nations were picked up by the six PSL teams in December last year. Ten players from England series are playing, including 2022 T20 World Cup winners Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali.
Star Australian wicketkeeper-batsman Matthew Wade is making his PSL debut with the Karachi Kings.
Over the years, the PSL saw the emergence of several players who later made it to the national squad, including current captain and the world’s second-best T20 batsman Babar Azam. All-rounder Shadab Khan and bowlers Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf first made their mark in the PSL.
“More than any trophies that we have won, what makes us most proud is how many guys have graduated from Islamabad to the national team,” Cheema, the Islamabad United official, told Al Jazeera.