As the HBL Pakistan Super League’s (PSL) points table starts to take more definitive shape, and teams start to either disappoint or punch above their weight, there is now more at stake than just the wins.
With spectators still unsure regarding which team to support — some opt to back their cities or the ones closest to theirs, others go for their favourite players, while others still are choosing whichever side is performing the best — the teams are literally playing for fan loyalty at this early stage of the HBL PSL.
Pre-tournament favourites Karachi Kings, representing the country’s biggest city, were all the rage in the port city early on, but as wins dried up, so has the support for the team.
Now, the blue of Karachi has been replaced by the purple of Quetta Gladiators or the yellow of Peshawar Zalmi — the tournament’s top two sides so far.
“I want Karachi to win but they are not playing well, so I decided to go for the players I like; and most of them — Shahid Afridi, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Hafeez and Shaun Tait — are in Zalmi,” said 17-year-old Karachi resident Hassan Latif while playing on the streets for a side filled with Peshawar fans.
Their opponents were those supporting Quetta. “I hit big like Ahmed Shehzad, and another reason we are supporting Quetta is that their captain — Sarfraz Ahmed — is from Karachi,” said Minhaj Abid.
And shirt sales reflect this changing trend.
A shopkeeper in Karachi, Abdul Rehman, reveals he had sold around 800 Karachi Kings shirts even before the tournament began, but demand for the shirts of Quetta and Peshawar have increased during the past two weeks.
“I bought loads of Karachi kits due to the demand they had earlier on, but now I have sold as many as 900 Peshawar shirts and 800 Quetta shirts while the Karachi ones have decreased in popularity,” he said. “I now have to get more shirts for Peshawar and Quetta, but at least sports markets are thriving again due to the HBL PSL.”
Another shopkeeper, Jumma Khan, feels Peshawar are popular due to the presence of Pakistan T20I skipper Afridi in their ranks. “Peshawar’s is one of the most popular kits even in Karachi,” he said. “That is down to their performances and due to Afridi, as everyone wants the number 10 shirt that he wears.”
But Karachi is not the only city whose hearts have been conquered by Gladiators and Zalmi. A similar trend can be seen in Islamabad, despite their side Islamabad United not doing that badly in third place.
“Our team does boast big names, but they are not able to play together, which has affected fan following, even in Islamabad and Rawalpindi,” said Nadeem Ali, owner of a sports shop, Olympic Sports, in Rawalpindi. “I have hardly sold 200 kits of Islamabad, while I have sold more than 450 Zalmi kits during the last week alone.”
Those in Lahore, however, have proven not quite as fickle though. “Lahore Qalandar kits are still selling very well and I have sold over a thousand already,” said Malik Jameel, manager of a sports shop, Butt Sports, in Lahore’s Liberty Market.
“People are supporting Lahore regardless of whether they win or lose,” he said. “Peshawar’s sales are second on the list but they are still considerably lower with just 350 kits sold, while the other three combined have just managed 200.”
With Peshawar and Quetta performing so well, the cities do not have to fear their residents supporting any other side. “I have not kept the kit of any other team except Peshawar’s, nor has anyone asked for any other kit,” said Abdul Rasheed, owner of Rasheed Sports in Peshawar. “I have sold more than 3,000 Peshawar kits. The demand has only increased along with performance, and I had to order a fresh batch recently.”
Teams continue to battle it out for the big prize in the heat of the UAE desert, but here in Pakistan, fans still remain undecided on where their loyalties lie.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th, 2016.