What characterises the four teams that made it to the Indian Premier League playoffs this year is their bowling strength. All four had better bowling units than the other six franchises, who focused more on batsmen in their player retention and auction.
Take for instance the IPL’s most successful franchise, Mumbai Indians, who finished last this season. Three of the four players they retained before the auction were batsmen, and their two most expensive buys at the auction were also batsmen. It left their bowling over-dependent on Jasprit Bumrah, who was easier to negotiate with lack of pressure at the other end.
Table-toppers Gujarat Titans were the opposite. Their two overseas fast bowlers, Lockie Ferguson and Alzarri Joseph, both cross 150 kmph and form a formidable combination with India’s premier seamer, Mohammed Shami, and Afghan leg-spin wizard Rashid Khan. It was their batting lineup that looked iffy at the outset, but a second wind for 37-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Wriddhiman Saha, return to form of skipper Hardik Pandya, and late order heroics by Rahul Tewatia and Rashid papered over the cracks.
They will be running into a team with an equally good bowling attack, if not better, in the first qualifier of the playoffs at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Tuesday.
Left-arm Kiwi swing bowler Trent Boult, the much-improved tall Karnataka speedster Prasidh Krishna, and clever Caribbean pacer Obed McCoy of Rajasthan Royals can match GT in the pace department.
RR leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, who has rediscovered his mojo to become this season’s highest wicket-taker, and experienced off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who is as economical as ever, are a great counterpoint to Rashid and impressive young Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner Sai Kishore of GT.
Ashwin keeps challenging those who write him off from white ball cricket, and has staked a claim to the all-rounder’s slot in the Indian team ahead of the T20 World Cup with a batting average of 30.50 at a strike rate of 146.40 in IPL 2022.
His BASRA (batting average strike rate aggregate) would be the envy of most of India’s top order batsmen, including former skipper Virat Kohli and current skipper Rohit Sharma.
The inventive Ashwin is a dangerous floater in the RR batting lineup which is studded with the hitting abilities of Jos Buttler, Shimron Hetmyer, Sanju Samson and Yashasvi Jaiswal. On paper it looks better than the GT batting where the only two genuine specialists are Shubman Gill and David Miller, whose assured No.5 batting position has revived his IPL career after failures for eight years.
Thus, GT batsmen have been performing way above expectations, whereas RR skipper Samson keeps flattering to deceive and the season’s top-scorer Buttler has gone off the boil in recent games.
This makes for a mouth-watering clash at the Eden Gardens where torrential thunderstorms over the weekend added a new twist to the upcoming playoffs. If the green-tinged wickets in Mumbai and Pune restored the balance between bat and ball in the league phase, a damp sticky wicket may do the same in Kolkata which has traditionally been a venue where both strokemakers and spinners have revelled.
The loser of the GT-RR encounter will get another crack at making it to the final by playing the winner of Wednesday’s eliminator between third-placed Lucknow Super Giants and Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Two tall young speedsters from India’s hinterland spearhead LSG’s bowling - right-armer Avesh Khan and left-armer Mohsin Khan. Avesh Khan groomed by Delhi Capitals for three years before he bloomed in the 2021 IPL, becoming the second highest wicket-taker. The speedster from Indore, who clocks above 145 kmph, has maintained his wicket-taking with 17 strikes so far for LSG, who acquired him for Rs 100 million.
But the find of the season is Mohsin Khan who was benched after an indifferent first game. He returned to the playing eleven when a niggle kept Avesh out. An economical spell against MI kept him in the side. Then he took three wickets against Punjab Kings and produced a player-of-the-match show with 4 wickets for 16 runs against DC.
Mohsin was little-known before this IPL, warming the benches for three years at MI. Now he’s an India prospect. He can bowl at 150 kmph, and mix it up with well-disguised and accurate slower balls. Blessed with a cool head on his shoulders, the speedster from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh gained from training with Shami during lockdown in Amroha.
Dushmantha Chameera from Sri Lanka, who can also reach the searing speed of 150 kmph, rounds out the LSG pace unit. Their googly man, Ravi Bishnoi, has belied expectations so far, however, and left-arm spinner Krunal Pandya plays more for his all-round skills.
That’s where LSG’s opponents RCB may have an edge with their leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga being the second highest wicket-taker this season behind Chahal. The young Sri Lankan with a strong wristy action, who created a sensation in the T20 World Cup last year with a hat trick against South Africa, may enjoy his outing at the Eden Gardens. He will be supported by the clever part-time off-spin of Aussie batsman Glenn Maxwell.
Aussie pacer Josh Hazlewood, who helped Chennai Super Kings win the title last year, and variation artist Harshal Patel give RCB a fighting chance, despite the loss of form of India pacer Mohammed Siraj.
RCB’s batting has been on and off. Faf du Plessis may have scored 443 runs this season, but the South African hasn’t managed to hit the form that saw him score 633 runs last season for CSK.
What augurs well for RCB is Virat Kohli’s return to form. The former captain did have his share of luck when he hit his second half-century of the season (73 in 54 balls) in RCB’s last match, but he seemed to have rediscovered his touch during the fluent knock.
If Kohli and Du Plessis can give RCB a good start, they have dangerous hitters in Maxwell and a rejuvenated Dinesh Karthik down the order.
The LSG batting depends a lot on openers KL Rahul and Quinton de Kock who had a record unbeaten partnership of 210 in their last league game against Kolkata Knight Riders. That they won by only two runs was because of Rahul’s conservative strike rate of 133 (about 8 an over) on a belter of a wicket where De Kock scored at a rate of 12 an over. Rahul has been guilty of choking as the captain of Punjab Kings in previous seasons, and LSG’s fate may rest on how freely he plays in the playoffs.
If you believe in destiny, you would put your money on RCB, who will be on a high after sneaking into the playoffs, thanks to DC making a hash of their last game against MI after getting into a clear winning position.
DC skipper Rishabh Pant dropping a skied sitter and then failing to review a caught behind off Tim David who went on to smash 34 in 11 balls shows that it often comes down to who can hold their nerve at the crunch.
In Du Plessis, RCB have a skipper with a cool head who has observed MS Dhoni at close quarters while playing for CSK earlier. And former skipper Kohli has the motivation and ability to turn his form around when it matters the most. This franchise with a huge following would thrill fans no end by winning a maiden title.
But then, it would be an equally stirring event if RR were to lift the trophy a second time as a tribute to their first captain, Shane Warne, who won the inaugural IPL in 2008. And if one of the two new franchises, GT or LSG, emerge as the ultimate winner, it would only reaffirm the IPL’s finest characteristic, a level playing field.
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