Big boys all set to take centre stage

A thrilling league stage marked by intense contests has propelled worthy challengers to the semifinals

Big boys all set to take centre stage

LEADING FROM THE FRONT:  Mumbai Indians’ Sachin Tendulkar was impressive with the bat in the league stage of IPL III. He also led the side in impressive fashion as they stormed into the semifinals with plenty to spare. PTI

With only four knockout matches left, the third edition of the Indian Premier League has already been an outstanding on-field success, largely untouched by the succession of unsavoury happenings off the park. The cricket has been of the highest order, exhilarating batsmanship and enthralling bowling competing for eyeballs and effect.

There has been no discernibly consistent pattern in the path taken to the semifinal stage by the four contenders. Mumbai Indians have been the runaway league-leaders, the only team that has fused flair and consistency. They secured qualification a little past the halfway stage of their campaign, a wonderful testament to their all-round skills and the desire to keep getting better. The rest have blown hot and cold.

Midway through their campaign, defending champions Deccan Chargers appeared dead and buried. Adam Gilchrist’s men went into the last phase of league action requiring to win every one of their last five matches to give themselves a chance of defending their title; in an exceptional display of character and competence, they found a man for every occasion to bulldoze to second place.

That the semifinalists weren’t decided until the last over of the penultimate match of the league phase is alone indicative of how close this year’s competition has been. It wasn’t just the Chargers who left it late. Chennai Super Kings were tantalisingly close to an early exit when Mahendra Singh Dhoni finally came to the party.

Dhoni needed to score 16 if the final over of their match against Kings XI Punjab on Sunday wasn’t to be their final over of the competition. Until then in the middle of a terrible slump, the Indian captain exploded sensationally to seal victory, and qualification. The Super Kings thus became the only team to figure in the semifinals of every edition of the IPL so far.

Blaze of glory
The Royal Challengers began season three in an absolute blaze of glory. With Jacques Kallis in the batting form of his Twenty20 career, Anil Kumble’s men blasted their way to the top of the league table with four wins from their first five games. The semifinals appeared no more than a formality, but five defeats in their next seven matches threatened to derail their campaign when, forced into a corner, they responded with dramatic desperation in Jaipur against the Rajasthan Royals.

Like his great mate Sachin Tendulkar with the Indians, Kumble has been a massive influence on the Challengers, leading with authority and bowling with characteristic zest.
He has opted to take the bull by the horns, putting in the hard yards and setting an example that less younger and more active team-mates have been hard pressed to emulate. Unlike Tendulkar’s Orange Cap, Kumble hasn’t anything tangible to show for his efforts. Not that it matters to him!

Each of the semifinalists has benefited from game-breaking performances from their Indian components. Tendulkar’s contribution to the Indians’ cause has extended beyond a mountain of runs. He has got the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Saurabh Tiwary and Ambati Rayudu to play with freedom and confidence; his leadership qualities, not too visible during his stints as Indian captain, have been remarkably in-the-face and inspirational.

Some of the big-name overseas stars, notably Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Sanath Jayasuriya and the Challengers’ Ross Taylor, haven’t yet got going. A few late arrivals, among them Mike Hussey, have found the going tough; others such as Paul Collingwood and Doug Bollinger have been far quicker in adapting to whole new conditions and a more demanding format.

Now, it all boils down to hunger, desire and nerves, as much as skills and ability. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow beckons. Over to the big boys, then!

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