And there we have it. After 56 matches of the tenth edition of the Indian T20 League’s group stage, we’re down to the playoffs. The top four teams out of eight will now battle for a spot in the final on Sunday at Hyderabad.
Fortunately for many fans, the last team to enter the playoffs – Rising Pune Supergiants – was decided on the final day of games, when they took on Kings XI Punjab in a direct eliminator contest. Punjab was bowled out for a paltry 73, but they finished out of the top four for yet another year.
Except Punjab, no other team stood a chance in the last week. Glenn Maxwell’s team fought hard till the final game, and finished short in their final hurdle.
On the second day of the tournament, these two teams faced each other. Steve Smith lit the tournament up with a match-winning 89, and Mumbai Indians lost their first game of the new season. They have been notoriously slow starters.
Pune eventually pulled a double on Mumbai later. But Rohit Sharma’s team started the group stages uncharacteristically stronger, winning six of their first seven games. At one point, Pune were languishing at the bottom after five games. Then they went on a Mumbai-like streak, winning six in a row and putting themselves as front-runners to qualify for the playoffs. By defeating Punjab on the final day, Pune pipped Hyderabad and Kolkata to an important spot: the top two. This means that they get two shots to enter the final. The team that loses this match won’t be eliminated; it will go on to play the winner of Sunrisers and Knight Riders in the second eliminator to reach the final.
The last time these two played each other at the Wankhede, Rohit Sharma failed to get his side home in the final few overs. Mumbai Indians failed to chase down a modest total of 160, falling short by three runs.
Both these teams had failed to qualify for last year’s playoffs. Mumbai had finished fifth, and Pune seventh. This will, in all likelihood, be the last season for the Supergiant team, with Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals primed to return for 2018 – replacing Pune and Gujarat Lions after a two-year ban.
Mumbai have reached the finals thrice and won it twice. This is the seventh time in ten seasons they’ve reached the playoffs.
Rising Pune Supergiant (Played 14, Won 9, Lost 5)
Making Steve Smith the captain after his stellar record-breaking season for Australia turned out to be a masterstroke by the management. MS Dhoni receded into the background as Smith acclimatized himself with the demands of T20 cricket rather quickly.
Rahul Tripathi, Pune’s second highest scorer of the season (388) behind Smith (420), turned out to be this year’s young-ish surprise package. The dashing opener made up for the incessant failures of the usually reliable Ajinkya Rahane. He will be the key at Mumbai’s small ground, on a flat pitch that lends itself to his stroke-making skills.
Steve Smith will have wanted to do more than just two fifties in his thirteen innings. But he will be happy that his lack of ability to break free was compensated for by Ben Stokes’ belligerence in the middle order. Yet, Smith has served as an anchor, especially in slow sluggish conditions. He has looked in better touch than MS Dhoni, who has struggled quite a bit (except for the match against Sunrisers Hyderabad) to finish off innings. Their leadership on the field has been important for a team brimming with young players and overseas veterans (Dan Christian, Imran Tahir). With the early withdrawals of Mitchell Marsh, Ravichandran Ashwin and Faf du Plessis, the team has done well to regroup and find a combination that has taken them through to the final stages.
Find of the tournament: Washington Sundar
The 17-year-old off-spinner and India U19 star, who was originally a batsman, has bowled splendidly. In his nine games, he has only gone for 7 an over, getting only five wickets, but frustrating batsmen enough to give away their wickets to the more experienced bowlers like Jaydev Unadkat, Ben Stokes and Imran Tahir. Sundar has done what Ashwin was supposed to do with distinction, and has a long career ahead of him.
Jaydev Unadkat bowled the over of the tournament against Sunrisers Hyderabad, defending 13 runs in sensational style – by bowling a hat-trick maiden! He became the first bowler ever to do that in the format, and the second to have two five-wicket hauls to his name in Indian T20 league history. He finished his ten games as Pune’s leading wicket-taker with 21 wickets to Tahir’s 18.
The most expensive player of all time, Ben Stokes has taken 12 wickets in 12 games. He contributed even more with his batting towards the end, despite missing a few games with injury. He has provided a fine return on investment – serving as their much-needed big hitter and finisher because of Dhoni’s poor form, as well as bowling in the death overs quite often.
Mumbai Indians (Played 14, Won 10, Lost 4)
This is a rare season where the Mumbai Indians have been frontrunners for most of the league stages. They have been the most consistent team, yet to call them the ‘best’ is a bit of a stretch. They’ve had problems, but they’ve won the big moments better than most.
They don’t have a single batsman in the top ten leading run scorers. Their highest scorer is – wait for it – Kieron Pollard, with three fifties and 362 runs, despite batting in the middle order. This shows how most of the batsmen have contributed timely knocks at crucial junctures, with none consistent enough to do so every game.
Nitesh Rana was the early find of the tournament, till he started tapering off towards the latter stages – ending with 333 runs, just ahead of Parthiv Patel’s 325 runs. They did well in the first half, consistently giving Mumbai a strong start. Then their captain Rohit finally found form and did well in the second half. Rohit, though, has had an underwhelming tournament overall so far with less than 300 runs.
Kiwi bowler Mitchell McClenaghen is the only bowler in the top ten wicket-takers, at fourth with 18 wickets. Then there’s Jasprit Bumrah at twelfth with 15 wickets, and that’s about it. Harbhajan Singh has kept the runs down as usual, while Lasith Malinga has had the worst season of his career. It’s a wonder, then, that the team finds itself at the top – proving how T20 can be a bits-and-pieces team game far more than an individual game. This team is the polar opposite to Royal Challengers Bangalore, who have depended on individual brilliance for years now.
The only Super Over of the tournament came in their match against Gujarat Lions. Jasprit Bumrah bowled a stunning super over against Brendon McCullum to seal the deal and spark off wild celebrations. It was somehow never in doubt that Mumbai would win that game, going on to prove how they’ve played with an unusual level of assurance and professionalism in the last month.
Pune have had the wood over Mumbai all season, but playing at the Wankhede in a big match could just bring out the best in Rohit Sharma. This will be the best time to reverse their losing streak, and depending on Ben Stokes’ contribution, Mumbai could just take the easy route to the final.