The chants begin to build, just audible over the already enthusiastic shouting and cheering of the crowd. Pakistan’s favourite son strides towards the wicket, arms outstretched, windmilling a couple of times, bat in hand. Psl!!
The number 10 on his back feels appropriate. Like Diego Maradona, he is part-sportsman, part-showman and by the time he has taken his guard the noise levels in the Dubai stadium have gone up several notches.
With the stands approaching somewhere near full capacity, it is the loudest the ground has been, and after nearly a decade worth of false starts, a moment when it feels like the Pakistan Super League has well and truly arrived.
“I am very happy that we now have PSL, so everyone will see Pakistan players against the best in the world,” said Ramiz, who is originally from Islamabad but has lived and worked in the UAE for the past five years – one of many expats who have turned up in force for the double-header on the competition’s second day. “Hopefully the PSL can one day be as big as the IPL – it will be good for all Pakistan. But I hope one day it can be played in Pakistan”
He is not alone in that sentiment. Najam Sethi, chairman of the PSL, has made that hope one of the stated aims of the competition, seeing the PSL as “a gateway to Pakistan”. Before the tournament began, he told ESPNcricinfo: “If we are successful in holding a league here which creates a degree of excitement, if our security situation continues to improve, as it is improving by the day, I see no reason why we can’t persuade foreign players to play one match in Karachi and one match in Lahore next year. Then maybe in the third year, we could bring the whole league back to Pakistan. That is the short-term objective.”
It would certainly be the best thing for the competition, which saw attendances dwindle sharply after the initial excitement of the opening two days – a brief glimpse of what could be, before the more sobering reality of a tournament in exile that was to follow.
On day two of the competition the fans flocked to the ground, among them Pakistani political royalty, Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, who had helped open the tournament the night before and was back at the stadium to see Mohammad Amir’s headline-grabbing hat-trick in Karachi’s convincing win over Lahore.
The young fast bowler’s return to cricket, following his spot-fixing ban, is one that divides opinion in the sport, although admittedly perhaps less so among those who gathered on that particular day. Mohsin, proudly wearing a Karachi Kings shirt, was one of that number: “I’m pleased to see Amir again. He made a big mistake, that is for sure, but he is exciting for Pakistan’s future.”
He, perhaps unsurprisingly, lives for the most part in Pakistan’s largest city, but, for reasons that get somewhat lost in translation, had business in Dubai and was watching the day’s events unfold from one of the stadium’s plush-looking boxes.
“This [the PSL] is something for my country to be proud of. India has not allowed Pakistan players in the IPL but now this will not matter, we have our own league.”
Given Pakistan’s relationship with its main neighbour, which might generously be labelled as a little dysfunctional, it is not perhaps the biggest shock that this idea of the tournament as a rival to the IPL is a popular one. While it seems highly unlikely that the PSL, or indeed any other global franchise tournament, will ever manage to outstrip India’s all-singing, all-dancing competition, there has at least been huge interest in the tournament back home in Pakistan – an incredible estimated 55% of the country’s television audience tuned in for the match between Karachi and Lahore.
But what, though, of the potential audience in the UAE? Can the competition ever appeal to a more mainstream audience, or is the feeling that cricket is mainly the sport of migrant workers in the region inescapable? On the evidence of the fairly dismal attendance figures that followed the busy first two days of the tournament, the PSL has some way to go on this front. Although things did improve a little when the games moved to Sharjah.
“Do you like cricket?” I asked a member of the ground security team, who, rather eccentrically it seemed, was wearing a thick woollen balaclava despite the blazing Dubai sun. “Slightly…” he replied rather enigmatically, before adding a bit sheepishly, “but I prefer football.”
There is, however, still a sizeable community of expats from a host of cricketing nations that the PSL should appeal to, as witnessed by the crowds during the early action. “We are are here to see Shakib [Al Hasan]!” said a man in a Bangladesh ODI shirt, who was swept away before our conversation could go any further by a noisy group of similarly attired compatriots.
Two others watching that day – who, even from quite a considerable distance, were unmistakably English – were work colleagues Ed and Dan, both fairly recent arrivals to Dubai. “We took the afternoon off work,” said Ed. “Well, it is Friday…
“It’s great to have this in Dubai. I’m hoping to see Chris Gayle smack it about a bit.”
“And Ravi Bopara!” added Dan enthusiastically, although perhaps not altogether seriously, seemingly another devoted member of the cult of Ravi.
Sadly, the pair will have been disappointed on both fronts, with Bopara not needed to bat and Gayle holing out to long-on in the first over. The Jamaican, in fact, has not enjoyed a good tournament, out first ball in his next match and slightly mysteriously missing the next two through a reported combination of injury and then illness.
In truth, while there have been some notable feats from overseas players – Luke Wright in particular – where the PSL has been a real success is in the performances of young Pakistani players: Mohammad Asghar, Rumman Raees and Mohammad Nawaz in particular; the latter two earning themselves spots in Pakistan’s World T20 squad.
While it is only early days, this bodes well for Pakistan’s cricketing future, with a whole new generation of players set to be exposed to high-intensity cricket from a comparatively young age.
Afridi ended up playing an innings that bordered on self-parody, smashing a couple of meaty shots to the boundary before blasting one straight up into the night sky for Andre Russell to catch. Boom, boom and bust as ever.
Ultimately, though, the crowd were not too heartbroken. They saw their hero in action after all, and after so long they have a franchise competition to call their own. And while the PSL remains some way off Wasim Akram’s claim to being the biggest thing to happen in the country’s cricket history, it is an all-important start – and if it leads to top-level cricket being played in Pakistan again, then who knows, it just might be.