PSL 2021: Islamabad United Preview

Will the most successful side in the PSL’s short history be able to add another trophy to their tally?

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Introduction

Under the stolid captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq and the mentorship of the late Dean Jones, Islamabad United became the winners of the inaugural edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League, defeating Quetta Gladiators in the final in Dubai. The season that followed was one to forget, with United ending up at fourth on the points table and getting beaten in the first Eliminator by Karachi Kings. In 2018, the franchise notched up another title win, with the duo of Misbah and Jones still at the helm. United remain the only team with more than one PSL title.

Season 4 saw Mohammad Sami replace Misbah as captain. United finished third at the end of the league stage and were defeated by Zalmi in the 2nd Eliminator. Ahead of Season 5, United made some personnel changes. Sami was dropped from the franchise and Shadab Khan was named as the new skipper, while Dean Jones was sacked as Head Coach after four seasons in charge. Misbah-ul-Haq returned to the side as the new coach with some controversy, due to his pre-existing roles as Head Coach and Chief Selector of the national side. The season proved to be United’s worst, with them being placed last in the table after managing just three wins in 10 games.

Due to these lackluster performances, United have made some changes to their coaching staff. With Misbah not returning, former South Africa captain Johan Botha takes over as Head Coach. He was previously part of the United management in PSL 2 and was the head coach of Multan Sultans in PSL 4. Saeed Ajmal was named the Assistant Coach, having been the spin-bowling coach the previous season. Rumman Raees also returned to the franchise as a bowling consultant. Shadab Khan will continue as skipper for the season and United will be hoping that the changes in the coaching staff will lead to better results this time around.

Squad Overview

Ahead of the draft, Islamabad United traded Colin Ingram for Alex Hales in a Platinum category swap with Karachi Kings. Hales, who had represented the franchise in 2018 and 2019, will bat in the top order for United, replacing Luke Ronchi. Colin Munro, originally a part of the squad, can’t make it due to COVID restrictions. Irishman Paul Stirling was picked by United in the replacement draft and he is likely to be the second opener.

Captain Shadab Khan could slot in at either 3 or 4, as he did for much of last season with success. All-rounders Hussain Talat and Iftikhar Ahmed should round out the upper middle-order, with Asif Ali (T20 SR 147.27) and Englishman Lewis Gregory (T20 SR 145) finishing the innings. Phil Salt is another big-hitting middle-order option, with the wicket-keeper striking at 152.49 in T20 cricket.

With the ball, Faheem Ashraf was the top wicket-taker of Season 3 and the 2nd-highest wicket-taker of Season 4. He is overall the highest wicket-taker for United, with 46 wickets in 31 innings. However, he can be expensive. Meanwhile, Hasan Ali, who was picked in the Platinum category by United’s wildcard usage, was the second-highest wicket-taker for Peshawar Zalmi in the last five seasons and could prove to be an asset. USA international Ali Khan was drafted in as a replacement for England’s left-arm pacer Reece Topley in a like-for-like replacement.

Youngsters Musa khan, Mohammad Wasim jr, and Akif Javed are also part of the fast bowling contingent. Right-handed Musa and left-armer Akif featured for the side last season but could not create much of an impact, with 6 and 4 wickets respectively.

The spin department consists of left-arm spinners Zafar Gohar & Ahmed Safi Abdullah, as well as leg-spinners Fawad Ahmed and Shadab Khan. Shadab was the highest wicket-taker for United last season with 8 wickets in 9 games. He is also the third-highest wicket-taker in United’s history, with 37 wickets in 41 games. Gohar picked 5 wickets in 3 games for United last season and has picked 11 in 7 games overall, at an average of 15. Abdullah made his debut last season and was retained in the emerging category. He picked 4 wickets in 3 games at an impressive average of 16.5. Having played for the Gladiators in the last 2 PSL seasons, Fawad was chosen by United in the replacement draft. He has picked 15 wickets in 17 games across the last couple of seasons.

Shadab Khan recently said: “We have learned from mistakes we made in previous editions and are committed to not repeating them. We went into the draft knowing what we need and we have picked exactly what was required for a better team combination.” (Geo)

Emerging Players

Ahmed Safi Abdullah

The 22-year-old left-arm spinner hailing from Faisalabad made his T20 debut in the last PSL, and it was a debut to remember. Even though he prised out the wicket of Lahore Qalandars captain Sohail Akhtar, it was with the bat that his biggest contribution came. He may have scored just 8*, but he held an end down as Mohammad Musa smacked the winning runs in a one-wicket victory. He has played just 3 T20s, all for Islamabad in PSL 5. He will be hoping to make his mark in the upcoming season of the PSL and get into the limelight.

Mohammad Wasim jr

A 19-year-old hailing from North Waziristan, he represented Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the recently concluded domestic season, where he played a few matches in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and Pakistan Cup. While he has not played any T20 cricket on the senior level, he did earn a Man of the Match award while debuting for Sindh U19 in the U19 Pentangular T20 Cup in 2018. An exciting aspect about Wasim is his pace. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Head Coach Abdul Razzaq in December stated that Wasim was the fastest bowler he had seen in the tournament. Moreover, he’s a hard-hitting batsman, capable of finishing off an innings with a flourish.

Strengths

  • Big-hitters: Islamabad have a lot of big hitters in their lineup, even though Luke Ronchi, Colin Ingram, and Colin Munro will not be a part of the lineup this season. Shadab Khan scored 263 runs at a destructive strike-rate of 159.39 last season, while Alex Hales, Paul Stirling, Asif Ali, Phil Salt, and Lewis Gregory all have T20 SRs above 140. Faheem Ashraf and Hasan Ali are capable of hitting big shots down the order.
  • All-rounders: United have a number of all-rounders in their squad, Shadab Khan foremost among them. Shadab was the leading wicket-taker and the 2nd-highest run-scorer for United last season. Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Wasim jr, and Lewis Gregory are bowling all-rounders, while Hussain Talat and Iftikhar Ahmed are also capable of bowling a few overs. Zafar Gohar is also useful with the bat, having 1 hundred and 5 fifties in FC cricket.

Weaknesses

  • Spin: Even though they have a couple of leg-spinners in Shadab Khan and Fawad Ahmed, and two left-arm spinners in Zafar Gohar and Ahmed Safi Abdullah, they lack a genuine off-spinner (sorry Iftikhar!). Besides, Shadab has not been in the best wicket-taking form recently, which may mean trouble in the middle-overs if he fails to click.
  • Pace: Apart from Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf, United’s pace-attack is a bit inexperienced. Akif Javed, Mohammad Wasim, and Musa Khan are all 20 or younger and have a total experience of 46 T20 games. Ali Khan has also played only 36 T20 games. Last season, United had the experience of Rumman Raees and Dale Steyn as a counterbalance.

Key Players

  • Shadab Khan: Shadab is probably the most important player in United’s line-up; in addition to captaining the team, he is also going to play a big role with both bat and ball. Last season, he led from the front with the bat, promoting himself up the order and impressing. He showed flexibility and came in to bat when required and hit his runs at an SR of almost 160.
  • Hasan Ali: United’s recruit in the platinum category will lead their bowling attack. Coming off a stunning Quaid-e-Azam Trophy season and a dream comeback into the Test side, Hasan will be hoping to bring that form into the PSL. He picked up 8 wickets for Zalmi in the last PSL at an average of 34.37 in 9 games, a far cry from his PSL 4 exploits, where he took 25 wickets in 13 games at an average of 13.64; he’ll be looking to get back to his best.
  • Alex Hales: The Englishman will be key at the top of the order, and United will be counting on him. He scored 272 runs at an average of 45.33 and an SR of 148.63 in the last PSL for Karachi Kings. Additionally, he is coming into the tournament in good form, top-scoring in the recently concluded Big Bash League with 543 runs at an average of 38.78 and an SR of 161.6.

Prediction

While they are filled with capable all-rounders, United’s bowling attack seems a bit inexperienced, despite brimming with talent. With the players they have available in the squad, United will at least qualify for the play-offs. However, their inexperience could cost them in the knockouts.

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