Having just guided his new franchise, Multan Sultans, to the top of the PSL table and ensured they became the first team to qualify for the last four, Rilee Rossouw was faced by a decision he had said he never wanted to make again. With the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world and several countries, including Rossouw's native South Africa, introducing stringent border controls, he posted a tweet that will have reminded PSL fans of the gut-wrenching announcement he had made three years ago, when he played for Quetta Gladiators.
"Unfortunately, I will no longer be involved in PSL 2020," it read. "It has been a privilege to represent Multan Sultans and to play/work with the special people there! Thank you Pakistan for your hospitality and for making PSL5 a [sic] unforgettable experience for me!"
Rossouw was leaving Pakistan to be home with his family, making him unavailable for the final group game and the knockout stage of the PSL. As it happened, the knockout stages would never take place, with the PSL forced into postponing the semi-finals and final as a precautionary measure after an overseas player displayed symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
"I hope and I wish everything goes to plan, and cricket comes back here, which there's no doubt it's going to"
Though Rossouw had decided against touring Pakistan in 2017, too, the circumstances could hardly be more different. Then, the entire Quetta Gladiators overseas contingent had opted against making the trip, with Rossouw understood to have deliberated the hardest before finally deciding to stay away "with a sad heart".
It was a decision Rossouw admitted he regrets to ESPNcricinfo. "It's something I've looked back at since, and felt a pang of regret about," Rossouw said during a chat the day before he left Pakistan. "Having been back since every year and enjoyed the hospitality of Pakistan, I've always felt completely safe, and if I knew then what I know now, there's every chance I would have come to a different conclusion."
The regret may have been compounded by how that final played out. Peshawar Zalmi's overseas players had all travelled to Lahore, led by the charismatic Daren Sammy, and blown a depleted Quetta side away, romping to the title in the process. And while a number of players on the T20 circuit may have developed reputations for being mercenaries, Rossouw, at least in Pakistan, has built a reputation of caring deeply both for the league as well as the side he's played for.
That side is now Multan, even if he is best known for his association with Quetta that culminated last year with a trophy against his name. Of players who missed at least one season, only Luke Ronchi is ahead of him in terms of runs scored in the PSL. It is, the BPL aside, his most successful T20 league, and Rossouw opened up on why the T20 circuit was going so swimmingly for him.
"For me, first of all, it's personal pride. I know many people think as a T20 player you're just a gun for hire, but whatever team I play for, I'm eager to do my best. Whether it be here or the BPL, I enjoy my time as much as I can. I know some people can think it's a bit of a hassle to be on tour all the time. But it is our job, you've gotta do it. I love what I do, so for me, it's just about enjoying myself out there, especially my batting."
Just like every other season in Pakistan, Rossouw had plenty of time to enjoy his batting, particularly against his old team Quetta, who came in for the heaviest punishment. In a league game in Multan, Rossouw put Quetta to the sword in an astonishing onslaught in the final ten overs that would see Multan plunder 134. It included a century Rossouw clobbered off just 43 deliveries - the fastest in PSL history - to set up a win that epitomised the contrasting fortunes of the two sides since. From thereon, Multan wouldn't to lose a game till after they had qualified, while Quetta wouldn't win one until they found themselves mathematically eliminated from the competition.
"If I knew then what I know now, there's every chance I would have come to a different conclusion" Roussouw on refusing to play in Pakistan in 2017
And while Rossouw took pleasure in his personal form, he had a soft spot for his old team-mates, too. "I love Quetta and my time at Quetta. They are still a franchise that is very close to me. Anything can happen in cricket, but unfortunately, things haven't gone their way because of off-the-field stuff. Umar [Akmal, who was suspended from the tournament on its eve under the PCB's anti-corruption code] plays a massive role at Quetta Gladiators, and his absence in the middle order has maybe hampered them a little bit. One or two guys have maybe been a little bit inconsistent in the tournament, which you can have in some seasons, too. I'm sure they'll bounce back very strongly.
"Multan has just been special for me. I enjoyed my time in the city, just to see how much cricket meant to the people. You see that in Karachi and Lahore and Pindi [Rawalpindi] as well, but in Multan, it really hit home what cricket is actually doing for this country. I hope and I wish everything goes to plan, and cricket comes back here, which there's no doubt it's going to. Just driving back from the games, you see the people on the roads waving and cheering. It was really, really special."
But it isn't just the city that's attracted Rossouw. The approach Multan have taken to the tournament is significantly different to the philosophy at Quetta, at least on the face of it. Multan had made clear they would prioritise data and analytics above all else to make decisions, both at the draft and during the competition, and while there was scepticism around the approach in a league where such ideas are very much yet to go mainstream, Multan used it to go top of the table by some distance.
"I kind of liked it [the attitude towards data]. I think that it definitely can benefit you. I wouldn't say there's no benefit here. Especially for the captain to know exactly where to bowl to certain batsmen, what fields to set. From that point of view, I think it's fantastic. And as a batsman, where you're weak and where you're strong it can help you with, too. You know what to work on, and you get a rough idea of where the bowlers are going to bowl to, so I think it's fantastic.
"I would definitely say you have to be careful with this, too. There are players here, and indeed players in every team, who could get overwhelmed with the volume of information coaches and analysts might be throwing at them, and players like that I feel you don't need to bother too much. You just need to tell them you just need to go out and play your game and not to worry about data or analytics."
"I know many people think as a T20 player you're just a gun for hire, but whatever team I play for, I'm eager to do my best"
The discussions in Pakistan invariably circle back to safety, and the experience of cricketers spending such large amounts of time abiding by security protocols they are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world. There has been talk of some players feeling stifled by the restrictions on movements, and others feeling so comfortable with the state of affairs in the country they felt most security arrangements were gratuitous. That may in itself be a vote of confidence for the future of cricket in Pakistan, but Rossouw was happy to take pleasure in whatever little distraction he could get.
"They kind of force us to stay in hotels, but we went to play some night golf a couple of nights ago. That was a fantastic experience. It was my first time ever playing night golf, but that was wonderful, I enjoyed it thoroughly."
Quetta and Multan fans could say the same about Rossouw's exploits on the field. He may, for now, have become a T20 journeyman, but those who watched him closely in the PSL over the years will hope his travels continue to include stopovers in Pakistan every year.