Stakes high in knockout clash

Royal Challengers Bangalore take on Mumbai Indians for a berth in the title round

Stakes high in knockout clash

RCB will depend on Chris Gayle (left) to blunt the Mumbai Indians’ attack spearheaded by Lasith Malinga on Friday. AFP

The Indians, last year’s beaten finalists, are on a two-match winning streak, coming through a high pressure chase in Kolkata in their final league match and putting out Kolkata Knight Riders in the Eliminator in Mumbai on Wednesday night.

IPL IV league toppers Royal Challengers, by contrast, let slip a glorious chance to clinch Qualifier 1 against Chennai Super Kings on Tuesday, falling apart in the final eighth of the contest. The Challengers, therefore, now have to take the difficult, more arduous path to the title clash against the defending champions.

It’s a theory that has few flaws, but Twenty20 games in particular are seldom decided on theories. Friday at the MA Chidambaram stadium, in Qualifier 2 with a place in the final at stake, is a fresh start. Whatever has preceded it will have very little bearing on what is to come in overcast and surprisingly pleasant Chennai.

That psychological points count for nothing was reiterated at the Wankhede stadium on Tuesday when, two nights after having been humbled by the Challengers, the Super Kings rose like a phoenix to make their third final in four years, brushing aside the same opponents. The Indians, therefore, can take little heart from their commanding win over the Challengers in the league phase, especially given that it came at the very start of the season, and long before a certain Chris Gayle had arrived to light up the Indian Premier League.

If there is one glowing positive the Challengers can take from Tuesday’s heartbreak, it is that there is more to their batting than Gayle. Admittedly, the only two matches they have lost since Gayle came into their ranks have been games in which the Jamaican has been dismissed for single-digit scores, but Mayank Agarwal, Luke Pomersbach and the increasingly admirable Virat Kohli showed on Tuesday that even if Gayle fails to fire, the Challengers can post a sizeable total.

In a high-pressure knockout game, a total in excess of 170 is generally a match-winning one; the Super Kings, however, are past masters at handling and overcoming pressure, and while the Challengers’ bowling did come apart in the climactic stages, Daniel Vettori’s men will also realise that there’s not too much one can do when Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Albie Morkel are all in the mood on the same day.

Impressive line-up

It’s not that the Indians don’t have an impressive batting line-up. They have, however, shown a distinct vulnerability under pressure. Notwithstanding reasonable IPL experience, there has been a touch of susceptibility to their middle-order, which is why more than ever, Sachin Tendulkar’s becomes a crucial scalp.

Aiden Blizzard’s blitzkrieg has ended the hitherto futile search for a stable opening partner for the master. The left-handed Aussie got on the bike and sped away against the Knights on Wednesday, but on a different Chennai strip against the experienced and on-song Zaheer Khan, Blizzard might not have things all that easy.

After an indifferent start – understandable in that a lot of adrenaline and emotion had dissipated in the immediacy of the World Cup triumph – the left-arm quick has come into his own. His first spells in the last few games have been outstanding, both in terms of penetration and economy. Zaheer has always enjoyed accounting for the big guys in the opposition, and they don’t come bigger than Tendulkar and IPL giant Rohit Sharma, who must be itching to atone for his silly run out against the Knights.

It was at this stage that, last season, the Challengers were swatted aside by Tendulkar’s team in Mumbai. Revenge alone won’t be uppermost on the Challengers’ minds; a shot at the holders, in their own backyard where they have been unbeaten this season, should act as additional motivation.

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