On Sunday night, Gujarat Titans will be bidding to become just the second franchise in IPL history to emerge triumphant in their debut season. Standing between them and ultimate glory is the only other team to do so – Rajasthan Royals, in the inaugural edition in 2008.
It’s in the fitness of things that the two most consistent teams of the competition, who finished 1-2 after the league stage, will be vying for top honours at the gigantic Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, expected to be generously populated for the title clash. It won’t necessitate a rocket scientist to figure out who an overwhelming majority of a crowd likely to be in excess of 100,000 will be rooting for. After all, the Titans are the home team, representatives of the Ahmedabad franchise which, alongside Lucknow Super Giants, made its debut in the expanded 10-team league this year.
Favourite-picking in a game of this magnitude is fraught with peril, if not downright foolhardy. In itself, the T20 format hardly facilitates anointing one outfit as the more fancied one. When it comes to a high-pressure, high-stakes contest like a grand finale, various other intangibles come into play, not least the ability to hold one’s nerve and not be overawed by either the stage or the occasion.
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The Titans, led superbly by first-time captain Hardik Pandya, won’t be unaware that the bragging rights they carry into the final will count for nothing. In an ideal world, they should be able to ride on the confidence and momentum derived from their twin wins over the Royals this season to propel them to a three-peat, but games of cricket aren’t won and lost on such simplistic suppositions. The Titans have had the measure of the Royals in both showdowns thus far – by 37 runs in the league phase and seven wickets in Qualifier 1 – but doesn’t guarantee that a similar script will unfold on Sunday.
Well rested after having taken the easier route to the final, the Titans will again bank on the inspiring leadership of Pandya, their power-packed middle order in which David Miller has been little short of outstanding, a gun pace attack led with panache by Mohammed Shami and the genius of leg-spinner Rashid Khan to carry the night. They would have taken note of the additional bounce that was on offer in Friday’s Qualifier 2 when the Royals brushed aside Royal Challengers Bangalore’s feeble challenge. Added bounce can be as much a bowlers’ ally as a batsman’s. From the latter’s perspective, that facilitates punchy book-foot stroke-making, which should be to the liking of Shubman Gill, the right-handed opener who is one of three Titans batsmen with more than 400 runs for the campaign.
Gujarat’s advantage of playing at home and of stacking up a 2-0 record against their opponents will be offset by the fact that the Royals have had a first-hand taste of the conditions at the venue. Sunday will be their third game in six nights, but any threat of fatigue – mental or physical – will be swept away by the adrenaline rush that comes with battling it out for the highest honours in the world’s most prestigious domestic competition.
Where there is a distinct slant towards pace when it comes to the Titans attack, the Royals boast a more rounded, versatile and complete bowling group. The late blooming of the muscular Obed McCoy has gone some way towards addressing their death-bowling concerns – for all their brilliance with the new ball, neither Trent Boult nor Prasidh Krishna inspires too much confidence at the backend of an innings – and in Yuzvendra Chahal and R Ashwin, they possess a spin combine to die for. It’s been a while since the two experienced campaigners have had a good night out in tandem. Sanju Samson will be hoping that the long wait ends when it matters the most.
Samson has handled the triple responsibilities of providing muscle to the batting, keeping wicket and marshalling his resources with mixed results, no matter that coach Kumar Sangakkara has hailed him as ‘exceptional’. He has been found wanting tactically more than once, both when it comes to bowling changes and rejigging the batting order. The Titans will punish any lapse mercilessly, so Samson must be on top of his captaincy game if he is to emulate the late Shane Warne, who inspired the unfancied Royals to a dramatic title triumph in 2008.
Victory in their first final since then will be the ultimate tribute to the legendary leg-spinner who tragically passed away in early March. Warne literally moulded a bunch of no-hopers into competition-beaters, instilling such belief and confidence in the likes of relative unknowns Swapnil Asnodkar, Ravindra Jadeja and Yusuf Pathan, among others, that they felt nothing was beyond them. Rajasthan’s 2008 success as much due to Warne’s man-management skills as the intrepidness of their lesser lights. There can be no better way for Rajasthan to thank and salute the superstar than a second title.
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Leading their charge with the bat towards that end will be Jos Buttler, their English opener who is assured of the Orange Cap. One of the retainees before February’s mega auction, Buttler has repaid the faith in splendid fashion. Having gone off the boil in the second half of the league phase, the right-hander has rediscovered his mojo in the knockouts with splendid hits of 89 and 106 not out, his fourth hundred of the campaign propelling him beyond 800 runs in IPL 2022. He has provided both the flair and the stability, emboldening the left-handed trio of Yashasvi Jaiswal, Devdutt Padikkal and Shimron Hetmyer to do their thing.
Samson, typically bowling hot and cold, has had a strange season with the bat. He does have 444 runs at a strike rate of 147.50, yet there have been a mere two fifties in 16 innings, ordinary returns for someone who mainly bats at No. 3. Perhaps he has saved his best for last. Or perhaps, he and his gun team will again be shaded by the bling of Pandya and the array of glittering riches in the Gujarat dugout.