New PSL season faces great expectations
Upon the creation of the IPL, and the riches it showered on the BCCI, Pakistan looked on enviously. It wasn’t just that another board was being enriched by a tournament more successful than Lalit Modi’s wilder dreams could have envisioned, it was the Indian board. And though political differences between the two countries have never been stated as the reason, Pakistan’s players have not played the IPL after the first season in 2008. As players from around the world stuck their fingers into the IPL pie, Pakistan looked on enviously.
Soon, Cricket Australia came up with its own T20 competition, and cricket in the AFL-dominated country was cool and trendy once more.
T20 tournaments then began to proliferate. Before you knew it, West Indies had the Caribbean Premier League, and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh their own Premier Leagues. The locals of Brisbane, Chennai and Port-of-Spain could all see Brendon McCullum rock up to play for their team. Still, Pakistan looked on enviously.
For what could they do? International cricket had not been played in Pakistan since 2009, so how was the PCB going to attract international players? The idea of a league in the UAE had been floated for years, but the PCB’s internal disputes and lack of continuity kept such prospects at bay. Until 2015, when Najam Sethi finally consolidated power at the PCB and began to put the plan into action.
Initial attempts to hold the league in the UAE, even, were rebuffed and Qatar was mooted as a possible venue. However, the PCB pushed hard, a deal was struck, and the rest is history.
The Pakistan Super League, which according to Najam Sethi was expected to make a loss, recorded profits of $2.6 million, with high television ratings and a passionate following. The success of the PSL is a greater achievement than that of any other T20 league, simply because of the unique challenges it faced, from not taking place in the home country to a clash with the Masters Champions League in its opening season, which brought notable scheduling difficulties of its own.
While the PSL was something of an unknown quantity in its first season, its goals are more transparent and ambitious this time. Pakistani fans have watched world-class cricketers rub shoulders with local heroes, and comparisons online with BBL followers or IPL devotees are lively, unchecked, and often unprintable. The PSL chairman Sethi was in an equally buoyant mood, saying last month the league was determined to become the second best T20 league in the world, with the defiant vow to hold the final in Lahore, come what may.
This, then, is the backdrop to the Pakistan Super League, on the eve of its second season. It will be crucial for its long-term prospects that TV ratings continue to rise – not just in Pakistan but globally – if the PSL is to compete with the BBL and the CPL.
Sethi admitted the PSL failed to meet its gate-money targets last year, which he attributed to a tight marketing budget. The PSL must not be held back by such concerns this time if Sethi’s lofty ambitions are to be met anytime soon, and full stadiums are the lifeblood of a T20 contest. This may turn out to be the PSL’s biggest challenge, because full stadiums are never a guarantee if the matches take place offshore.
To that end, the promise to play the final in Lahore is a shrewd marketing ploy. For most Pakistan fans, it keeps relevant the link between the PSL and the return of international cricket to Pakistan, which frankly remains a distant prospect for now. The idea that more PSL matches could be held in Pakistan over the coming years is a seductive one, and bound to keep followers interested. It is also a bit of a gamble, and if the final doesn’t take place in the country, the loss of faith in the competition may take years to retrieve.
As the PSL looks to the years ahead, it will also have to add more teams. Sethi promised the inclusion of a sixth team for 2018, but later said the existing franchises opposed the idea because it would mean a smaller share of the pie for each of them. A sixth franchise is expected to be added next year, which is important not just to enhance the tournament’s reach and profile but also to improve the current format, in which four of the five teams go through to the next round. The present structure takes away importance from the group stages, which is concerning because the group stage comprises the entire tournament bar the last three matches. A large part of the appeal of any T20 league is the importance of each individual contest, which the PSL’s format fails to provide.
That said, the PSL has attracted cricketers any T20 league would be lucky to have. Brendon McCullum is the most notable addition, while Chris Gayle and Kevin Pietersen have returned for second seasons. Each team has dedicated supporters, and eyes in Pakistan will be glued to TV screens with the hope that one day the glitz and glamour will come back home, from the desert of Arabia to the gardens of the Gaddafi.