Mohali: Expected to be a three-horse race, the qualifying competition of the Champions League has been singularly straightforward, devoid of drama, excitement and nail-biting suspense.
So dominant and overpowering have Otago Volts and Sunrisers Hyderabad been that the entrants to the main draw have been decided at the first possible instance, relegating the final set of league ties on Friday (September 20) to largely of only academic interest.
It was always on the cards that Faisalabad Wolves, hugely short on genuine quality, would find it practically impossible to do battle with Otago, Hyderabad and Kandurata Maroons on an equal footing. For Faisalabad to be even remotely competitive, they needed their two players of genuine and proven quality, Misbah-ul-Haq and Saeed Ajmal, to perform out of their skins. Both specialists had their moments, Misbah more so with the bat than Ajmal with the ball, but the lack of support from their teammates and the quality of opposition they have encountered meant Faisalabad had just about as much chance of qualifying as of finding snow in the desert.
Brushed aside by Otago and Hyderabad, Faisalabad will be hoping to take away some gains when they run into Kandurata in their final encounter. Their participation initially in doubt owing to perceived security concerns, Faisalabad then had to endure spending one night away from their designated team hotel in Chandigarh because they didn't have a city-specific visa. It has been a rocky road all the way through for Misbah's men, and they will believe, for all their travails, one victory is the least they deserve.
While Faisalabad's campaign has unfolded along expected lines, Kandurata have been extremely disappointing, to put it mildly. Sri Lanka's domestic Super Four champions arrived not merely with a huge reputation but a glittering array of internationals present and past. With Kumar Sangakkara, Lahiru Thirimanne and Upul Tharanga leading the batting and Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis and Suraj Randiv spearheading the bowling, they had reason to believe they were in with a genuine chance of moving past the league phase.
Kandurata, though, have flattered to deceive. Their batting has been passable but the bowling has been well below par, and their catching and ground fielding have left a lot to be desired. They have played nothing like the champion outfit they are and they so easily could be, which is why, instead of battling the big boys for top honours, they will take the flight home on Saturday, reflecting on an opportunity so casually frittered away.
Otago's success should come as no surprise, given the wonderful depth at Brendon McCullum's disposal and their meticulous preparation coming into the competition. They spent ten days in Sri Lanka working together and getting match-fit, and have ridden on their explosive fast bowling strength and their terrific batting might. The arrival of Ryan ten Doeschate has added more teeth all-round. Ten Doeschate showcased his value with a wonderfully versatile display against Kandurata, while Ian Butler and James McMillan have led the bowling attack with enterprise and purpose.
Vaughn Johnson, the coach, might believe his team has flown under the radar somewhat, but no one will be taking Otago for granted, not anymore for sure. Not even bragging rights will be at stake when Otago run into Hyderabad in the final league match on Friday night, what with the groupings for the next stage already decided and there being no incentive to finish on top of the qualifying pile. But that unquantifiable called momentum will be on top of the minds of both outfits as they brace up for the more serious challenges that lie ahead.
"They are a good side, they have got a lot of talented players," said Tom Moody, the Hyderabad coach, of the Otago challenge. "Obviously, there is a player in their side who was a part of our family during the IPL in Nathan McCullum. We will be looking to try to go through the qualifying stages undefeated. Momentum in Twenty20 cricket is important. If we can carry that momentum through to the main tournament, that's only going to put us in a strong position. We certainly won't be taking our foot off the accelerator. It's an opportunity for us to continue to press for further improvement in all departments. It's a chance for us to build to be in as strong a position as possible, come the main tournament."
Hyderabad had struggled for batting muscle in the IPL, but, in more batting-friendly conditions, they have brought their A game with Shikhar Dhawan and Parthiv Patel at the forefront. Dhawan has been a revelation as skipper, calm and composed and essentially his own man, but unafraid to seek suggestions from the likes of Darren Sammy. From Hyderabad's perspective, both victories have been achieved without Dale Steyn firing on all cylinders or JP Duminy getting a chance to exhibit his extraordinary skills. So it's all go for the youngest babe in the IPL family.
Friday's matches: Faisalabad Wolves v Kandurata Maroons (4.00 pm); Sunrisers Hyderabad v Otago Volts (8.00 pm).