Last year’s IPL had left the two finalists with a straightforward task: Chennai Super Kings had to make their seniors relive their youth and Kolkata Knight Riders had to make their youth mature quicker. Luckily, both have astute white-ball captains, both world-cup winners, and both with former New Zealand captains as head coaches.
MS Dhoni is leading a team that knows how to win but which had stumbled last year when according to its coach Stephen Fleming was “an ageing team”. Eoin Morgan is leading a young team that had a captain resign midway last season and which by its coach Brendon McCullum’s assessment was “paralysed by fear” in the India leg of the tournament. Dwayne Bravo, Faf du Plessis, Robin Uthappa, and even Dhoni himself on a rare occasion have rewound their clocks while Kolkata’s youngsters have enjoyed making their presence felt in the arena.
Considering Chennai were in top 2 at the end of the India leg of the tournament, Kolkata’s job of turnaround in the Dubai leg was arduous but one they have accomplished with great aplomb.
But above all, the IPL final in Dubai on Friday is a contest between Chennai’s batsmen and Kolkata’s spinners. CSK batsmen vs KKR spinners.
Go back to the group league fixture between the two sides in Abu Dhabi, where CSK chased down 172 to win by two wickets. KKR played two spinners in that game and although Sunil Narine took three wickets, he conceded more than 10 runs per over. Varun Chakravarthy as usual was miserly, going at less than six runs per over. KKR have now brought in Shakib Al-Hasan as their third spinner, perfecting the middle-overs choke in the Eliminator and Qualifier 2. But there’s a catch, pitches in Sharjah had been tailor-made for KKR’s style of bowling. The pitch for the final in Dubai is likely to be more batting-friendly.
Economy-rate of the three KKR spinners have been wonderful, all conceding less than seven runs per over. Up against them, however, would be a group of batsmen who trust their footwork and the ability to read spin off the hand.
Once again, revisit the Abu Dhabi game and the way Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis neutralised Narine. Gaikwad charged down the track against the spinner at the outset, forcing him to drag back his length. The psychological battle won, Gaikwad pulled Narine over long-on. The two CSK openers, who have 1,150 runs between them in this IPL, also prefer to play straight, reducing risk factors. Gaikwad is the anchor, while du Plessis is the enforcer.
Robin Uthappa at No. 3 could still be an impact batsman on surfaces that allow hitting through the line. Delhi Capitals bowlers learnt it the hard way in the Qualifier 1, as promoting him at No.3 was a tactical masterstroke from Dhoni. The CSK skipper pre-empted a good pitch for the knockout game, giving Uthappa two matches in the lead-up to bed in before unleashing him at No.3. Batsmen to follow, until Ravindra Jadeja as the finisher, are good at devouring slow bowling on good batting pitches and therein lies KKR’s biggest challenge. Dhoni’s blazing finish against DC complicates matters for the opponents.
A fingers-crossed emoji from a KKR official on WhatsApp dropped a hint about the prevailing anxiety. Officials don’t take the field and are expected to be tense. KKR haven’t played an IPL final since 2014. CSK, on the other hand, would be playing their ninth final in 12 attempts. It would be imperative for Morgan’s troops to be tension-free and not get overawed by the occasion.
KKR have 2014 to fall back on to draw inspiration, when they had two victories from the first seven matches followed by an all-win record thereafter to lift the trophy. KKR have been playing a specific brand of cricket that saw them enjoy a reversal in fortune during the second phase of the tournament in UAE.
Not that their game was Sharjah-pitch specific, for they won matches in Dubai also. But the slow and low Sharjah decks aided the six-metre length and stump-to-stump line of their spinners. Varun, Narine and Shakib are good enough to change the template if the conditions demand it. But against CSK, their degree of difficulty would be higher.
To draw a football analogy, CSK resemble the last great Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side of 2012-13, when an ageing team took motivation from the last season’s hurt and romped to the Premier League title. Like that United side, CSK’s ‘Dad’s Army’ learnt from their 2020 mistakes of changing team combinations too frequently and this time, a settled unit would probably be playing together for one final time.
A full auction is scheduled next year and some CSK players like Suresh Raina seem to have run their race. Dhoni himself has kept his retirement decision open-ended, although the CSK management is confident of a Chepauk farewell.
From CSK’s perspective, apart from cancelling out the middle-overs choke, breaking KKR’s opening partnership early would be the key. Venkatesh Iyer and Shubman Gill have gelled brilliantly and their good form immensely contributed to the team’s upsurge. Deepak Chahar, a little off-colour of late, will have to regain his Powerplay mojo. KKR would counter CSK’s experience through collective effort, their biggest strength.
Shamik Chakrabarty … read more