When Gujarat Titans met Chennai Super Kings in this season’s Indian Premier League opener in late March, the question was whether a young and fledgling outfit could hold up against the onslaught of a proven winner.
It didn’t matter that GT was the defending champion, having seen only growth during every moment of its existence since late 2021. CSK, despite appearing to have lost its mojo a bit after finishing ninth in the previous edition, was seen as a wounded tiger on the prowl.
On equal footing
Two months since, they will meet on an equal footing in the grand finale at the Narendra Modi Stadium on Sunday.
They sparred in Qualifier 1 just days ago in Chennai, a match CSK won by 15 runs. But it’s the summit clash that will have a definitive feel to it, for it will crown this season’s best.
The game also presents Hardik Pandya with a chance to test his leadership acumen against M.S. Dhoni — the country’s best-ever white-ball leader — on one of cricket’s biggest stages. After all, among the many pleasurable experiences in sport is to watch a talented upstart trying to topple an established star still at his prime rather than wait for an impending void.
Hardik has enough talent at his disposal to achieve that. Shubman Gill leads the IPL run-getters’ chart (851 runs), while Mohammed Shami, Rashid Khan and Mohit Sharma are atop the wicket-takers’ list with 28, 27 and 24 scalps respectively.
The way GT bounced back from the defeat to CSK to pummel Mumbai Indians on Friday spoke volumes about the side’s mental make-up. Having already featured in a final last year, also in Ahmedabad, GT is unlikely to suffer from stage fright, though a sophomore’s test can be tricky.
No emotional baggage
On the other hand, CSK is a four-time titlist. It may have lost five finals, but Dhoni’s isn’t quite the side that will be weighed down by the emotional baggage.
The greying, yet sharp, talisman is like an outsized blotting paper that absorbs all the excess ink so that the pen can keep scripting success stories. Even the constant chatter around the 41-year-old’s retirement hasn’t affected the dugout.
“It is pretty easy when you have a superstar who does the job so well,” said Stephen Fleming, on match-eve. “That’s allowed us to work below the surface and just be a foil for him when he needs some advice or support.
“He is like the rest of the players, his form goes up and down. But what he is very consistent with is the tone that he sets. Some of our secrets… continuity of people, belief in players and calmness under pressure… these are traits that come from him and we are able to add to that.”
The likes of Devon Conway (625 runs) and Ruturaj Gaikwad (564) have revelled while Ravindra Jadeja, after last year’s captaincy fiasco, has quietly come into his own. And in pacer Matheesha Pathirana, CSK looks to have unearthed a gem.
Thus on Sunday, excellence won’t be in short supply. But it is perfection that wins crunch matches.