So at long last we are down to the four playoffs. It’s taken a lot of games to reach the climactic stages of the IPL – 72 to be precise – but in the next few days the winner of the sixth edition of the competition will be known. And who will it be?
Will Rajasthan Royals win back the trophy they won in the inaugural year in 2008? Will Chennai Super Kings be crowned a third time? Can Hyderabad regain it with the change in name proving to be lucky? Or will Mumbai Indians inscribe their names on it for the first time?
It would be tempting for the punter to put a small wager on Chennai or Mumbai on the grounds that they finished ahead of Rajasthan and Hyderabad in the final points table. But as we have so often seen in this abbreviated format it is the form on the day that counts and one bad day or one good day – or to be even more precise one bad over or one good over – could decide the outcome. In Twenty20 every little error can be magnified so it could also be one dropped catch that decides the result.
Be that as it may there is little doubt that Twenty20 as a format has evolved into matters of strategy and tactics. There is method and planning involved and it is not just slam bang cricket. We have seen interesting duels between batsmen and bowlers even as the rival skippers try and outwit each other whether it is a surprise bowling change or an unexpected switch in the batting order.
When you look at the team stats there is very little difference. One team may be better off in batting, the other in bowling while fielding standards have remained constantly high. Chennai for example have come good in all departments of the game. They have contenders for both the Orange Cap and the Purple Cap in Mike Hussey and Dwayne Bravo.
An encouraging factor is the form of their key players MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja while Mohit Sharma has emerged as the surprise packet. But if they have game changers so have Mumbai. Kieron Pollard’s uncanny ability to send the ball repeatedly into the stratosphere is something that scares opponents.
For them too key players like skipper Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik, Dwayne Smith, Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell Johnson, Pragyan Ojjha and Lasith Malinga are in form while one can expect Sachin Tendulkar to shake off his lethargy and get cracking when it matters most.
But then matching Chennai and Mumbai in every field is Rajasthan. Shane Watson is a proven game changer and his ability to also strike with the ball is an added advantage. Key players like Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Dravid, Stuart Binny, Brad Hodge and Kevon Cooper can be expected to deliver the goods as they have been during the league stage. James Faulkner is the holder of the Purple Cap with 26 wickets and Rajasthan have unearthed two fine talents in Siddharth Trivedi and Sanju Samson.
Hyderabad’s strength right through the league stage has been their bowling. With Dale Steyn, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra and Thisera Pereira consistently among the wickets opposition batsmen have had little respite. They have also discovered a handy talent in young leg spinner Karan Sharma. The batting has been a bit of a problem though the belated inclusion of Shikar Dhawan has strengthened the department. And at crucial times Parthiv Patel, Pereira and Darren Sammy have delivered.
The failure of Cameron White and Kumar Sangakkara to be among the runs has meant that Hyderabad have frequently fallen short of their target but they have raised the level of their game when it mattered most and clearly have been the surprise packet of the competition.
Hardly anyone would have expected Hyderabad to make the playoffs at the start of the tournament. On sheer entertainment value it might have been good for the climactic stage if Royal Challengers Bangalore had made it to the final rounds. But they have only themselves to blame for faltering towards the end after leading the points table for an extended period.
The play offs start with a bang with Chennai and Mumbai squaring off. Interestingly enough Mumbai defeated Chennai both times in the group stage where playing at home was generally a big advantage. There is no advantage or disadvantage for the four teams from now on as both Delhi and Kolkata are neutral venues for the participants.
All in all an intriguing line up and one can expect four close encounters. I cannot see any of the games being one sided and the evenly matched teams should serve up the perfect dessert to the seven week long tournament. So for the time being let us set aside the scandals and controversies and enjoy the cricket.