The stage is set for an epic showdown in Chennai tonight as defending champions Gujarat Titans (GT) take on four-time title winners and home favourites, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the 2023 Indian Premier League’s (IPL) Qualifier 1 at the historic, 50,000-seat Chepauk Stadium.
The Titans, led by all-rounder Hardik Pandya, were a revelation last year in their first season in the IPL when they thrust all comers aside to romp to the title.
And CSK are led by the legendary Mahendra Singh (MS) Dhoni, the 42-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman extraordinaire who also led India to the 2007 ICC T20I World Cup and 2011 ICC ODI World Cup titles besides shepherding his IPL side to four championship wins.
Both sides bristle with some of the best national and international talent on offer and finished at the top of the table after the league stage with the Titans taking pole position with 20 points from 14 games and CSK close behind with 17 points from the same number of matches.
According to the IPL playoffs format, the Qualifier 1 winners head straight into the final while the losing team still has a chance to go through as they then play the team that triumphs in the Eliminator which features the sides that finished third and fourth in the table.
On current form, the Titans would appear to have the edge as, captained astutely by India all-rounder Pandya, they have been in imperious form throughout the two-month long tournament, winning 10 and losing only four matches.
But underestimating CSK, especially on their home ground, under a man dubbed ‘Captain Cool’ who has ensured that his team has four runners-up finishes to go along with an equal number of championship wins, would be folly.
That argument is bolstered further by the fact that Dhoni, whose mere presence on any Indian ground generates more excitement amongst adoring fans than for any other player, has marshalled his resources adroitly throughout the tournament, using practically the same 11 in almost every game – except for when his hand has been forced by injury or other circumstances.
And, in the New Zealander Devon Conway, they have one of the most consistent batters in the tournament. The left-hander has scored at a brisk rate at the top of the order throughout the tournament, often getting his team off to flying starts, and is currently fifth in the most-runs table with 585 runs at an average of 53.18 with six half-centuries.
With fellow opener Ruturaj Gaikwad also bringing an explosive element to the start of the innings, Dhoni has encouraged a resurgent Ajinkya Rahane to showcase repeated innovative batting displays that have been so impressive that the discarded India batter might just find himself recalled to the national side for the World Test Championship final next month.
With England allrounder Moeen Ali also lending firepower to the batting and Ravindra Jadeja adding more to the mix with his left-handed batting and bowling and live-wire fielding and the likes of Ambati Rayadu and Deepak Chahar stepping up to the plate whenever required with their batting and bowling respectively, CSK have looked increasingly more ominous as the tournament has progressed.
Their biggest surprise package, though, has been Matheesha Pathirana, a 20-year-old Sri Lankan pace bowler, dubbed ‘Baby Malinga’ because of the similarity his bowling action has to that of his former compatriot, Lasith Malinga.
In another sign of how well Dhoni gauges a player’s temperament and potential, the CSK has often entrusted the young quick with the responsibility of bowling the final over in a tight, run-chase situation – and Pathirana has often delivered.
However, the Titans have demonstrated throughout that tournament that they have more than their own share of match-winners.
Leading that list is Shubman Gill, 23, the elegant right-hander who has scored two centuries in a row in the team’s last two matches and is currently second in the list of tournament top-scorers with 680 runs at an average of 56.66.
Pandya, who himself capable of turning a match on its head with his batting on his day, is another threat in the middle-order as is all-rounder Vijay Shanker, who has also had a good tournament thus far.
And South African David Miller, known for his abilities as a ‘finisher’, is due for an impact after having had little to do for much of the tournament because of the impact the top-order has had so consistently.
It is in the bowling department that the Titans hold a clear edge.
Veteran India pacer Mohammed Shami and Afghanistan all-rounder Rashid Khan are at the top of the most wickets list with 24 wickets each in the tournament.
Shami has consistently provided his team with crucial wickets in the opening overs of an innings while Khan has backed him up with his leg-spin in the middle overs.
And fellow Afghan Noor Ahmed has provided able support with his left-arm wrist-spin.
The T20 format is so unpredictable that picking a winner is always going to be a bit of a lottery.
But, this much is clear: in a high-intensity clash of this magnitude, neither team will want to blink first.