After eight weeks of high-frenetic action, upsets galore, outstanding individual and team performances, meteoric rises and inexplicable slumps, heartbreaks and major breakthroughs, IPL 15 enters its final stretch.
Four teams – Gujarat Titans, Rajasthan Royals, Lucknow Super Giants, and Royals Challengers Bangalore have made it to the play-offs. By Sunday next, the winner will be known. If what has transpired so far this season is anything to go by, the final week will be loaded with high octane cricket, loaded with suspense and drama. Fasten your seat belts!
After the completion of the league stage, two contrasting stories stand out: the stunning fall of multiple title winners Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, and the equally stunning rise of new teams Gujarat Titans and Lucknow Super Giants.
Mumbai have been five-times winners of the title, CSK had four titles, and entered this season as defending champions. Both teams flopped badly, Mumbai finishing bottom of the points table, Chennai ended only a notch higher.
What went wrong with both these teams has been a matter of unending debate and discussion right through the tournament with no clear answer emerging. The most plausible appears to be a flawed strategy in player retention, and even more so in the mega auction which saw both these teams let go of tried and tested match-winners.
For instance, Mumbai lost Hardik Pandya to Gujarat, Quintin de Kock to Lucknow and Trent Boult to Rajasthan. Chennai surprisingly held back from taking the bids for Faf du Plessis and Josh Hazelwood (both going to Bangalore) to a positive closure.
How splendidly these players have performed for their new franchises can be gauged from the fact that they are all in the play-offs.
Of course, the woeful slump experienced by both Mumbai and CSK can’t all be pinned on player selection. The dismal form of stalwarts was as big, if not a bigger, factor.
Rohit Sharma, India’s best white ball batsman and Mumbai captain, had his worst season ever, failing to even make a single half century. Kieron Pollard, hero of many Mumbai triumphs, couldn’t put a foot right. For CSK, Ravindra Jadeja’s tepid form was a big setback. This also took a toll on his captaincy. White ball specialist Chris Jordan, seen as replacement for Hazelwood, performed so dismally that he had to be dropped.
In stark contrast to Mumbai Indians and CSK, new entrants Gujarat Titans and Lucknow Super Giants took the tournament by storm. Both these teams were assembled over a period of a few months – some players acquired before the auction as per rules, most in the mega auction. Their success was a vindication of the vision and strategy of the team management in player selection.
When the tournament started both teams looked promising on paper. Such is the spread of talent in the IPL that all teams show this. Gujarat and Lucknow, against odds one might add, succeeded because the potential of the players and team was actualized through mature management of the respective squads, astute selection of playing XIs, fine captaincy, and above all, the commitment and ambition of players.
As the tournament progressed, Titans and LSG went from strength to strength, overcoming tight situations and crises with aplomb, showing depth of resources, derring-do and deep desire to win.
Of the other two teams in the play-offs, Rajasthan Royals have been arguably the most exciting to watch. In batting and bowling, they are blessed with players of exceptional talent, which has raised expectations from the team of repeating their 2008 win. Remember, that was the inaugural season of the IPL when Rajasthan, a team flush with youngsters, had pulled off a coup under the charismatic leadership of the late Shane Warne.
Since then, season after season, Rajasthan have flattered to deceive, moving inconsistently in fits and bursts, not doing justice to itself. It almost seemed that the overarching philosophy of the team was to play entertaining cricket rather than winning matches.
That appears to have changed this season. There’s more responsibility and accountability without compromising on flair and panache, and this has paid rich dividends as they finished no.2 on the points table.
Royal Challengers Bangalore have Delhi Capitals to thank for making the cut. In their last league match, against Mumbai, Delhi captain Rishabh Pant made some terrible boo-boos when defending a modest 159, dropping a sitter then failing to take the DRS against Tim David for a snick behind which effectively quashed their aspirations of making the last 4, allowing RCB to sneak in instead.
The Bangalore team had looked wobbly right through. Virat Kohli’s lean trot assumed diabolic dimension, made all the headlines, and also looked like it might affect RCB’s prospects adversely. But the team hung in there doughtily, picking up wins at crucial times, thanks to the efforts of Hasaranga, Faf du Plessis, Hazelwood, Maxwell, Harshal Patel. In their last league match, with the chances of staying alive on a knife’s edge, Kohli rediscovered his best touch and RCB beat table toppers Gujarat Titans.
This got them a step closer to qualifying for the play-offs, but the suspense remained since Delhi, also in contention, had yet to play Mumbai. On form, Delhi were clear favourites, but the couple of mistakes in the field wrought `capital punishment’ on them, clearing the path for RCB.
So from 10, it’s now down to four teams vying for top honour. Three of these have never won the title. Titans and Super Giants obviously as they are first timers in the IPL. RCB, in the play-offs for the fourth season running, are still seeking their maiden title. Rajasthan Royals won in the inaugural season in 2008, but have since drawn a blank.
Which among them has the best chance to win this season? I’ll duck the invitation. Predicting a winner in T20 cricket, and particularly the IPL, is always perilous. Take your pick at your own risk!