Not until the penultimate game of the 56-match league stage was the Qualifier 1 contestants formalised. It took the very final encounter for the play-off protagonists to be identified. Four matches have ended in ties, one of them decided in a historic second Super Over; no previous edition had more than two Super Over finishes. Fourteen matches were settled in the final over, three of them off the last ball.
Even by the frenetic standards of the Indian Premier League, Season 13 has been a fascinating roller-coaster, a smorgasbord of drama and theatre. The cricket hasn’t necessarily been of the highest order, understandable given that a majority of the players were coming off unprecedented six-month breaks, but high-octane action hasn’t been at a premium.
Last season, the fourth-placed qualifier boasted just 12 points from 14 games. This year in the UAE, that was the number of points the team at the foot of the table, Rajasthan Royals, picked up. In fact, three teams were tied on 12 points, three more on 14. Simply put, there has been no more competitive league phase in the tournament’s history.
Beyond Mumbai Indians, not just the table-toppers but comfortably the most formidable team on view thus far, there has been little to choose between the sides. Led by Rohit Sharma and, in his injury-enforced absence, by giant West Indian Kieron Pollard, the defending champions have been the epitome of consistency, their ten-wicket defeat at the hands of Sunrisers Hyderabad in the last of the 56 matches a fallout not just of resting pace aces Jasprit Bumrah and Trent Boult but also from the inevitable drop in intensity that a guaranteed top-slot finish brings with it.
Delhi Capitals, Sunrisers and Royal Challengers Bangalore, the three other qualifiers in that order, best exemplify the unpredictability that makes the tournament the exciting spectacle it is. Midway through the tournament, the Capitals and the Royal Challengers were well on course to challenge Mumbai for the two top positions that give them two shots at a place in the final. The draw had panned out so beautifully that it was always on the cards that match 55, between Shreyas Iyer’s young Turks and Virat Kohli’s seasoned warriors, would be a direct shootout for a top-two place. No one, though, would have imagined that there would be the additional pressure on both teams of having to manage their defeat (and nett run rate) to stave off the suddenly genuine possibility of elimination.
The Capitals tail-spun to four consecutive losses before getting their act together just in time, putting it past the Royal Challengers and stumbling through as the second-placed team. That six-wicket defeat made it four on the bounce for the Bangalore franchise, an unflattering reminder ahead of their do-or-die Eliminator against the Sunrisers on Friday.
The Hyderabad outfit, champions in 2016, produced a run not too dissimilar to four years back. After nine games, they looked out for the count with just three victories; of their five remaining fixtures, the last three were against the top three teams. Going into the first of those must-win games, they had lost seven for 17, and translated a sure-shot win against Kings XI Punjab into the most heart-breaking defeat. Yet, digging deep and making light of the loss at various stages of the tournament through injuries of Mitchell Marsh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Vijay Shankar, they mounted a spectacular charge with talismanic leader David Warner at the forefront. Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai weren’t just conquered, they were brushed aside – by 88 runs, five wickets and ten wickets respectively. If at all, beyond Mumbai, any team can aspire to use momentum as the stepping stone, it has to be the Sunrisers.
Three of the four teams that failed to make the cut will have reason to count themselves desperately unlucky, even if much of that luck was of their own making. Chennai Super Kings avoided the wooden spoon by stacking up a hat-trick of late wins, but they had been shown the door long before Mahendra Singh Dhoni, belatedly, veered from his unyielding stance and invested in youth. Kolkata Knight Riders, Kings XI and Rajasthan Royals all had their moments, but when it came to the crunch, execution of skills let them down horribly badly.
Each of these franchises had several things going for them. The Knights, who unveiled new skipper Eoin Morgan midway through after Dinesh Karthik voluntarily stepped down to ‘focus on his batting’, couldn’t extract the most out of the Caribbean duo of Andre Russell and Sunil Narine. Russell, the powerful all-rounder, missed a handful of games through injury while Narine was held back as a precaution once his bowling action was listed under the ‘suspect’ category by the match officials. As a team, they never hit their straps. Like Kings XI, actually. Skipper KL Rahul, the Orange Cap holder, was badly let down by his overseas stars, most notably the consistently under-performing Glenn Maxwell who might at last have to part ways with his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The Royals could summon the explosive skills with the bat of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, the searing pace of the remarkable Jofra Archer, the feistiness and all-round exuberance of Rahul Tewatia. They provided some of the finest moments of the competition, especially when Archer was gunning down high-quality batsmen with practiced ease. So, did they deserve to be bottom-dwellers? Honestly, yes, and not only because someone has to come in last. There was a disjointed look about them, not helped by the fact that skipper Steve Smith’s run-scoring plateaued after a roaring start.
Tired pitches, the influx of dew and therefore the significance of the toss will continue to contribute to the excitement as the tournaments heads into its four most pivotal games. Two previous champions and two sides looking for their first title. Whoever wrote this script can be proud at having delivered another blockbuster.