PSL 2024 – Caught between ILD20, SA20 and IPL, PSL takes center stage

The PSL has gone from being the second largest T20 league in the world to the third largest in February in 14 months.

Daniel Rasool

PSL captains' sartorial preferences aren't the league's biggest problem right now AFP/Getty Images

On a hazy Wednesday morning at Lahore's Jilani Park, the PSL unveiled the trophy for the ninth season. PCB Chairman Mohsin Naqvi met six captains and franchise owners. Perhaps there wasn't a set dress code, but it could be described as mysteriously-casual: Shaun Masood, Babar Azam and Shatab Khan wore their team jerseys; Shaheen Shah Afridi appeared in Lahore Qalandars hoodie; Mohammad Rizwan was perfectly dressed, while Sarfaraz Ahmed looked the sharpest of them all, but there was no sign of the Quetta Gladiators logo on him. Gilanders owner Sameen Rana, in a tracksuit, appears to have broken the morning rush to hand over the trophy to Naqvi.

It was a far cry from the glitz and glamor of earlier years. The high-water mark for such extravagant opulence was, in fact, a gem crafting conference disguised as a cricket occasion in 2017, when then president Najam Sethi oversaw a similar event. It includes vivid descriptions of the 50,000 double-edged Swarovski crystals that adorn the „Spirit Trophy.” According to the PCB website, it takes „its inspiration from the intelligence of the universe”.

The most appropriate way to launch a trophy might be somewhere in between these two, but if 2017 embodies the confidence Pakistan felt about the PSL, 2024 reveals the ultimate direction of travel. The early seasons of PSL instilled hope and excitement in a new, fresh audience about Pakistan cricket. From Chris Gayle, Andre Russell and Kevin Pietersen to Brendon McCullum, Sunil Narine and AB de Villiers, the biggest names in T20 cricket have continued to feature. Each year, the tournament took another significant step towards ending Pakistan's long drought of hosting cricket in the country, with the 2017 final in Lahore shaping up to be one of the most electric in recent memory.

As the PBL lost some of its luster during those years, the PSL began unofficially branding itself as the second-biggest T20 league after the IPL. And on many counts, it was hard to argue. When the league returned to Pakistan in its entirety, it regularly packed the stadia, especially for evening games. Team loyalty and fan engagement were inherently passionate in a way that few leagues could compete with. From 2016 to 2019, no league had fewer runs per game – often dominating the ball, providing a different preparation for the run fests such leagues often throw.

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However, an overview of this year's foreign participants provides a sobering reminder that progress is not always linear, and the growth of the PSL cannot be taken for granted.

This year's platinum overseas category includes Jordan Cox, Daniel Sams, Kieron Pollard (in his prime), Russie van der Dusen, David Willey, Noor Ahmed and Sherfan Rutherford. Noor has already ruled out of the tournament, and van der Dusen and Tabriz Shamsi are on the day-to-day absentee list, along with Rashid Khan, Reece Tapley, Lungi Ngidi, Jamie Overton and Tim Seifert. It's not the quality-laden list you'd expect in the second major cricket league.

Dysfunction at the board level didn't help. From the start of 2021, there have been three PSL seasons and five PCB presidents. There was a nasty tussle with the Pakistan Junior League and the PCB flirted with the idea of ​​a women's league without seriously drawing up plans for it, eventually throwing together three women's exhibition matches and then scrapping it altogether.

But several factors outside the PCB's control make this a particularly dangerous moment for the PSL. The general elections held on February 8 in a bitter political situation have captured the attention of most Pakistanis, as well as the media platforms, which have generally turned their attention from politics to cricket. In contrast, the PSL has slipped under the radar, with almost negligible mainstream media coverage, as the fallout from the elections continues with no clear conclusion in sight.

ILT20, and SA20 have become more important than PSL in the initial one-year window. ILT20

However, PSL has bigger problems than unfortunate timing. When the league launched in 2016, the February-March window normally occupied by tournaments was open in a calendar that was still relatively irregular. Ahead of the IPL in April, players can use the event as a tune-up, while those who are not part of the IPL can push the T20 blast and CPL-related cases further down the line. Hosting the tournament in the United Arab Emirates allowed PCB Software to launch with those who inevitably wanted to collaborate on coming to Pakistan, and when the change was eventually made, the reception (James Faulkner notwithstanding) was universally positive.

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But the recent emergence of two leagues, SA20 and ILT20, has pushed the PSL into something of a corner. The owners of those teams range from IPL owners to Adani and Glazer. As a result, late winter has become one of the busiest of the year, with the PSL becoming the tightest sliver of the calendar ever from mid-February to mid-March.

When it was launched in late January 2022 to accommodate the home series against Australia, the competition lost its flexibility. This year, the PCB had originally scheduled the PSL window to start on February 8, but tried to minimize the conflict by declaring the ILT20 to run until February 17 as its start date.

This forced the tournament to be held until March 18, the month of Ramadan, when religious rituals prohibit food and drink from sunrise to sunset, making it an unpleasant window for players and match-going fans. The month is determined by the lunar calendar and starts about 11 days earlier each year, meaning that for at least the next half-decade it directly clashes with part or all of PSL's current slot. Initially, the PCB considered shifting the tournament to January as the obvious solution, but the current situation suggests a three-way tie with those two leagues.

Scheduling inconveniences aside, the advent of those leagues means players looking to ply their trade have a much larger selection at the moment. The highest salary bands of SA20 and ILT20 are significantly higher than PSL and both South Africa and UAE are more attractive destinations than Pakistan. Despite improvements in Pakistan's security concerns, player movements require security everywhere, and a relatively less permissive social culture makes it difficult for Pakistan to compete with those two countries on non-cricket factors as well. For top players, PSL becomes an easy league to skip if they have a SA20 or ILT20 contract before it and/or an IPL contract to follow.

The PSL had all the glitz it needed until it was squeezed into a window of relative insignificance by new, innovative leagues. PCB

Simply put, the PSL has gone from being the second largest T20 league in the world to the third largest in February in 14 months.

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The effect of the IPL immediately following the tournament is that players err on the side of caution when making themselves available for the PSL. A player keen to play in the IPL and keen to ensure he is fit for the T20 World Cup, Tapley was ruled out of the tournament by his team following a minor ruckus in the ILD20. Rashid decided to skip the PSL due to a back injury in order to make sure he plays in the IPL.

If the PCB saw these problems coming, there was still no indication of how they planned to deal with them. Naqvi, to be fair, is only a week into his job, though it should be remembered that he also currently holds the post of caretaker chief minister of Punjab province, which has given him the responsibility of governing a population of 120 million.

Financial realities are tough enough to deal with for a cricket board prepared to face them, and the PCB has shown no signs of late of being serious on either front. The PSL seems to have moved on in turmoil without a captain, and with strong winds blowing both ways, all it can do now is ride out the tide.

Suddenly, PSL captains' sartorial choices don't seem to be a problem.

Tanyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan Correspondent. @Danny61000

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