The legendary Dutch player and former Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff used to say his team must make sure that the worst players in the opposition team get the ball the most. Cruyff, who had a bigger influence on football than any other man in the sport’s history, knew that in team sports you are only as strong as your weakest player. The easiest way to break a chain is to target its weakest link and sport teams are no different.
Of all team sports, cricket has always been the most individualistic, the game essentially boiling down to individual battles between one bowler and one batsman at a time. While teams could once consistently rely on the sheer brilliance of their best players to win them games, the advent of T20 cricket has changed that — the room to hide your worst players decreases as the importance of every delivery increases.
Now the team that mitigates its weaknesses will come out on top more often than the team that augments its strengths. The 2023 edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) has highlighted this more forcefully than ever before.
The latter stages of the tournament’s group stages in Pindi were dominated by the batsmen in record-breaking fashion as individual, team, and league records were shattered one after the other.
The Multan and Quetta match then contrived to break some of the format’s record, their combined 515 runs in 40 overs being the highest-ever runs tally in a T20 match. In the same game, Usman Khan’s fastest-ever PSL century off 36 deliveries was also the fastest-ever in T20 history in terms of balls played in the innings.
Usman reached his century after only 8.2 overs had been bowled, in other words a player was celebrating his century after only 50 balls had been bowled in the entire innings.
It is no coincidence that in this scoring extravaganza of a season where the bowlers have largely been dominated by the batsmen, the top two sides were the ones that could count on the tournament’s most consistently lethal bowlers. Multan Sultans have the top two wicket-takers of the tournament, with Abbas Afridi (23) and Ihsanullah (21) neck and neck in the top wicket-taker’s race.
Lahore bowlers meanwhile occupy the other three spots in the top five, while these two teams monopolise the top seven spots on the list. The remaining three spots in the top ten belong to the tournament’s third-best team Islamabad United.
Conditions in Lahore were different from those in Pindi. The Gaddafi pitch on Wednesday provided the bowlers with precious seam movement and uneven pace, the cracks in the surface causing that planting that little seed of doubt into the batsmen’s minds — all that was required to shift the balance of power from the batsmen back to the bowlers.
That this was not a 200-run wicket was clear right from the start. Usman scored 29 from 28, having scored 120 off 43 deliveries in the previous game, and Multan went from scoring a record 156 in the first 10 overs of their last game to scoring less than half of that with 70 in this one.
Sultans deserve credit for not only figuring out the conditions so quickly but also for reigning in their natural attacking instincts so efficiently, playing out Rashid Khan who can be doubly dangerous in such conditions and picking their time to strike once he was seen off.
Keiron Pollard was the pick of the bunch, using all of his experience as he backed himself in difficult conditions and took his time to get used to the surface. The legendary West Indian went from 17 off 19 to 57 off 34, his final 40 coming off 14 deliveries — a blur of unrelenting acceleration that in hindsight took the game away from Lahore before they knew what had hit them. Pollard inspired Multan to 160-5, which was a steep total but not an impossible one.
The wicket was difficult, but it was not unplayable — Shaheen Shah Afridi does not go for 47 runs without a wicket on unplayable pitches.
It eventually boiled down to the weakest link of the chain though and by the admission of Lahore’s headcoach Aqib Javed himself, they have a bowling heavy side. The only Lahore batsman to score more than 200 runs in this edition so far is Fakhar Zaman.
Every other team has at least two such batsmen and the three other teams to have qualified for the playoffs have at least three each. In bowling friendly conditions, their weak batting line-up was ruthlessly exposed by Multan.
Lahore had lost all three games in which they had been previously asked to chase down totals in this edition, their batsmen failing to guide the side to victory. So when Anwar Ali burst through Fakhar’s defences with a beauty that jagged off the seam, the sound of ball hitting timber was as sure a death knell for Lahore’s chase as they come.
A fourth failure in a row for Lahore’s chasing batsmen seemed inevitable after that as they ended up being dismissed for less than half of Multan’s score.
Multan, meanwhile, continue to reap the benefits of consistently being the league’s most balanced side — not necessarily the one with the best players or the highest ceiling but the one with the least weaknesses and the lowest floor. Due to this, Muhammad Rizwan and his men can now look forward to contesting their third consecutive PSL final on Sunday.