After 53 T20 games over 45 days, the playoffs – the last four games – of the ninth season of biggest domestic T20 league in cricket is here. Four out of the eight teams will now do battle in Qualifier 1 (between the top two teams), an eliminator (between 3 and 4), Qualifier 2 (between the loser of the qualifier and winner of the eliminator) and a final. It isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
All you need to know now is this:
The order of qualifiers: Gujarat Lions (9 wins), Royal Challengers Bangalore (8 wins), Sunrisers Hyderabad (8 wins) and Kolkata Knight Riders (8 wins). Till a week ago, the Lions and Royal Challengers looked set to crash out, but much has changed in their final two games.
On the final weekend before the playoffs, six out of the eight teams were still in with a chance of qualifying – all within two points of each other. Only Rising Super Giants Pune and Kings XI Punjab had crashed out. Except for the dead rubber Saturday game between them, the other three matches were virtual knockouts. The loser of Mumbai Indians and Gujarat Lions were going to be eliminated on account of poor run rate. Knight Riders absolutely had to win the game against top-placed Sunrisers to qualify, and the loser of Bangalore and Delhi would be eliminated too. Never before had the tournament been so open on the final day of the group stages. Eventually, only one team finished on 18 points, with three others on 16 – and Bangalore (also known as Virat Kohli) qualified second because of their superior run-rate (and their batting paradise ground).
Gujarat Lions v/s Royal Challengers Bangalore
In their debut season, Gujarat Lions under Suresh Raina, has impressed many with their all-around ability. No single player has stood out or topped the charts, which goes to prove how all of them have found form at different points of time. It began with Aaron Finch, before Dwayne Smith came in with the bat, then the ball, and Brendon McCullum fired in the last few matches, before, finally, captain Raina stepped it up after becoming a father. He needed the break to Holland for the birth of his daughter, came back, got his act together after a damp run, scored two 50s, and guided his team to the playoffs. He was the only weak link in the batting order till now, and he has now taken over his place at the top of the all-time run-scoring list after Kohli became the first to crack 4000 runs (almost 1000 have come alone in these 14 games).
But the Lions don’t start as favorites – because the “momentum” team, the team destined to win their first after a disastrous start to their campaign, is Kohli’s Royal Challengers. They’ve now won four in a row, on back of two Kohli centuries and a few cameos by AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle. What’s more – they’re playing at the flat-tracked Chinnaswamy again, a reward they’ve earned after storming up to second place because of the way they destroyed the Kings XI and Supergiants over the last week. Since 2011, the team finishing second in the group stages has gone on to win the whole thing. This is a good omen for Kohli and Co. – who have hit their stride at the last possible moment, a la Mumbai Indians, sneaking in on the final weekend after being behind the eight-ball throughout. The real hero, however, has been the leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, who has shot up to the top of the Purple Cap list, with seven wickets in the last two games – making up for the bad start to this year, and dragging his team’s weak bowling attack ahead along with Shane Watson.
PREDICTION: Bangalore, again, with Kohli and Chahal firing. The Lions struggle a bit against spin, and aren’t as experienced on this small ground as the Challengers. Moreover, Gayle and AB are due again, even if Kohli fails. And then there’s KL Rahul in form, as well as Watson, who hasn’t fired yet.
Sunrisers v/s KKR
Both these teams were favorites to finish in the top two only a week ago. The Sunrisers were leading the charts, and KKR weren’t far behind, until suddenly, Bangalore destroyed everything in their path. Both these teams will be slighted at not finishing strongly, and will be desperate to avoid elimination after working so hard to make it to the Top 4. David Warner, especially, will be frustrated, after they had to win only one of their last two games against Delhi and Kolkata to be assured a Top 2 spot – and two shots at the final, instead of every match being a knockout now. Gautam Gambhir will be annoyed that Robin Uthappa and him failed to get going in their final few games, but will be pleased with the return to form of Yusuf Pathan – who has guided them admirably without the injured Andre Russell, their MVP by a mile. They play in Delhi, which means the team with the better spinners – KKR, with Sunil Narine, Piyush Chawla, Kuldeep Yadav and Shakib Al Hasan – will be the favorites. The Sunrisers has a bowling attack that has turned many heads, but has always lacked a spinner, which could well be their undoing after a strong run through the season.
PREDICTION: The Knight Riders defeated the Sunrisers in the final group stage game, and could just do it again. If David Warner doesn’t fire, it’ll be a difficult slog for the batsmen at the Ferozshah Kotla.