KS Bharat has been on India’s senior domestic circuit for nine years. The Andhra wicketkeeper-batsman has been a regular fixture in India ‘A’ teams for the last few years and was briefly drafted into the Indian Test squad. He has a wealth of experience – 78 first-class appearances to go with 50-plus caps in both List A and T20 cricket. Just last week, he celebrated his 28th birthday.
And yet, until Friday night, he was cloaked pretty much in cricketing anonymity. The dramatic last-ball six off Avesh Khan that secured Royal Challengers Bangalore a thrilling win over Delhi Capitals might not change Bharat’s life upside down, but that one event has done more to bring him into public consciousness than his not unimpressive preceding exploits – he does have nine first-class hundreds and an average of 37.24 to go with 270 catches and 31 stumpings.
The final flourish from Bharat’s punitive willow just about summed up the last league phase of IPL 2021, at the end of which the men were separated from the boys. Even before a ball was bowled on Friday, it was obvious that the Capitals would finish on top of the heap and the Challengers would end up third, the duo sandwiching Chennai Super Kings who surrendered a great deal of momentum following three defeats on the bounce.
Mumbai Indians, the defending champions, needed a miracle to displace Kolkata Knight Riders from the fourth spot, and even though they gave it their best shot, the dice was loaded so heavily against them that they couldn’t keep Eoin Morgan’s men out of the playoffs.
By virtue of finishing one and two respectively, the Capitals and the Super Kings get two shots at making the October 15 final. That’s only fair; the consistency they have shown over 14 matches has conferred on them the luxury of not being punished for one bad night in office. The Challengers and the Knight Riders don’t have that same safety net. One of them will head home on Monday. Hard as it might be to imagine, this is actually when the action really hots up.
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It’s been a frenetic, frenzied three weeks since IPL 2021 resumed in the UAE. As has been the case over the years, there has been no shortage of thrills and entertainment. The return of the fans, if only in limited numbers, has brought back a semblance of normalcy, while the varied nature of pitches across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have meant teams have had to adapt to different challenges on a dynamic basis, thus allying the ennui of the sameness that can sometimes envelope this format.
When the tournament was halted in India in early May, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore had done the front-running and, barring the unforeseen, appeared set to take their place in the next stage. The race was always going to be for the fourth qualification spot – Sunrisers had all but played themselves out of contention with six losses in their first seven games, and the Knight Riders were only marginally better off, having scored just an additional win from the same number of matches.
Kolkata’s transformation in the UAE has to be the story of the second leg. The induction of Venkatesh Iyer at the top of the order worked wonders as the tall left-hander unleashed the aggression coach Brendon McCullum had been crying out for. The Knight Riders had been timid and reticent during the Indian leg; Iyer and Shubman Gill made sure there was no unwanted encore, while Rahul Tripathi, Nitish Rana and Dinesh Karthik all had their moments and made sure that Morgan’s desperate but unsuccessful quest for a meaningful contribution didn’t pull the side down.
Through a combination of grand design and a little luck, they also have the ideal bowling combine to exploit the pitches in the UAE. Sharjah has been sluggish and two-paced, bringing not just mystery spinners Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy, but also the frightfully quick Lockie Ferguson into play. The bigger boundaries at all three venues have acted as an insurance against strongly built batters and wonderful bats that propel even mishits far and wide. That Kolkata have barely missed the all-round services of injured game-changer Andre Russell is testament to their depth, resolve and character, all of which will be sorely tested by Virat Kohli’s outfit.
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The Challengers, yet to win an IPL title, will eye the perfect send-off for Kohli, who will relinquish the captaincy at the end of this campaign. They have blown hot and cold, bailed out primarily by their bowling group marshalled by Purple Cap holder Harshal Patel, Mohammed Siraj and Yuzvendra Chahal, and by the batting pyrotechnics of Glenn Maxwell, a perennial IPL under-achiever who finally seems to have found peace and acceptance in the Bangalore ranks.
Kohli and Devdutt Padikkal have been scratchy and inconsistent, while AB de Villiers has inexplicably been batting too low. Now that they know there are no second chances, RCB have no option but to back their heavy artillery to do the range-hitting they are so effortlessly capable of.
The Super Kings and the Capitals are perhaps in the same boat, let down badly by taking their eye off the ball in the last week. There have been mistakes galore and a discernible lack of energy in their final few games, perhaps because of a mental slackening off once a top-two berth was sealed. There is too much wisdom in the Chennai ranks for the hat-trick of losses to hold them down in what could be Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s last IPL as a player.
The sentimental favourites can expect no favours from the Capitals, marshalled astutely by Dhoni’s understudy Rishabh Pant. The latter made no effort to hide his displeasure at the shoddy fielding against Challengers on Friday, and it must be assumed that he and uncompromising head coach Ricky Ponting would have read out the riot act. If that fires up the pace trio of Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada and the admirable Avesh Khan, Sunday night should be a whole lot of fun.