Not often does a two-month long T20 tournament have two teams with contrasting personalities and campaigns come up against each other for the ultimate prize. In that sense, the George Bailey-led Kings XI Punjab have been like a soaring eagle, flying high from the word go with a few minor hiccups while Gautam Gambhir's Kolkata Knight Riders have crashed and burned their way to the final. Yet, when they take the field on Sunday, none of that narrative will be of any significance.
A tale of contrasting campaigns
Kings XI Punjab have been the most attractive on-field team this year. Beyond the glamour and the high-octane energy levels that co-owner and Bollywood star Preity Zinta brings to the table, smart investments in the player auctions have helped them put forth a side with a healthy mix of international cricketers and young uncapped Indian players. While Glenn Maxwell stole the headlines in the early phase of the season, scoring in the 90s at will, it was also the Indian bowlers among their ranks like Parwinder Awana and Sandeep Sharma who reveled in this season.
Sanjay Bangar's astute behind-the-scenes management oversaw Punjab being equally prolific while both setting a target as well as chasing it down. After Maxwell's repeated onslaughts early on, there would have been a hint of worry that they could experience a collapse if Maxwell suffered an off day, but those thoughts were quashed when the other batsmen in the line-up stepped up. In that sense, it has been all about turning up at the right moment for this franchise.
Manan Vohra, one of the two players retained by the team, patiently waited for his turn as Cheteshwar Pujara was given a fair run of games at the top of the order. When he got his chance, he was batting with Wriddhiman Saha chasing a total in excess of 200 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad. He managed to grab his chance by the scruff of its neck, smashing a 26-ball 54. Saha, who spent most of his time carrying drinks in a yellow jersey for the Chennai Super Kings in the previous edition, transformed into a handy top-order batsman with a sensible head and the capability to play as per situation.
Another example of a player taking the limited opportunity thrown his way has been the young leg-spinner Karanveer Singh. In a season that has seen a few leggies, like Yuzvendral Chahal and Pravin Tambe, cause discomfort for some of the best batsmen, young Karanveer took his limited chances, picking up seven wickets in four games, and is on the verge of playing a key role in the final for the Punjab side. Punjab have also benefitted from the form of Sandeep Sharma, who has 18 scalps in 11 matches while Awana too has chipped in with seven wickets from six games, albeit a poor economy rate.
As for their batting, it has taken just one knock for Virender Sehwag to sound a warning to all his critics and opponents alike, giving his Delhi opening partner and Kolkata skipper a few headaches of his own. The troika of Vohra, Maxwell and Saha have been even more dangerous, with David Miller and Bailey serving as the cherries on the icing. On paper, this side looks as good as any to walk away with the IPL trophy, but matches are seldom won on paper. Their inexperience at this stage will be their biggest 'Achilles Heel.'
With clinical performances on one day and unbelievable collapse on the next, Kolkata Knight Riders have been a fan's nightmare. Yet, somehow, they've managed to appease them by making it to their second final in three seasons. Gautam Gambhir's struggle with form saw the side stumble to three back-to-back losses after two wins in the five matches played at UAE. Return to India didn't quite change their fortunes as they suffered two more losses and were now a part of the rat race to the top four spot.
Yet, much like Gambhir's fluctuating form, the tide turned and Kolkata went on a winning spree. It was indeed a spectacular turnaround for a team that suffered an agonizing loss to Rajasthan Royals in a super-over finish, an unexpected batting collapse in a fairly straightforward run-chase vs Kings XI Punjab. Such was their rise from shambles that they managed to pip Chennai Super Kings to the second spot, courtesy Yusuf Pathan who sent the Sunrisers Hyderabad bowlers on a leather hunt, smashing the fastest ever IPL fifty and finishing on 72 off 22 balls to sink their opposition and usurp Dhoni & Co's second spot.
Much of this resurgence is down to the form of some of their regular performers. Robin Uthappa's purple patch has now extended to 10 games where he has managed scores in excess of 40 and has consistently given his team the start they need. With 655 runs in 15 innings, Uthappa is miles ahead in the list of top run-getters this season. His opening partner Gambhir has blown hot and cold but has done well to hold his side together in their comeback. All-rounder Shakib-al-Hasan and leading spinner Sunil Narine have also been vital cogs to KKR's campaign.
Battles to watch out for:
Virender Sehwag vs Morne Morkel
Sehwag's bludgeoning knock of 122 from 58 balls would have sent a feeling of uneasiness in the Kolkata camp. The idea of facing an in-form and brutal Sehwag in a tournament final will not be one that either Gambhir nor his men will be particularly keen on. That's where Morne Morkel's early spell will come into play. While Sehwag may have made mincemeat of Chennai's bowling on Saturday night, it will be interesting to see how he approaches the early swing that Morkel will generate. Whether he decides to get his eye in and then shift gears or begin straight away from the final gear could have a crucial impact on the way this game will head.
Glenn Maxwell vs Sunil Narine
There is no hiding the fact that Glenn Maxwell absolutely enjoys smashing spinners out of the park. However, Sunil Narine will be a tough nut to crack. There is very little doubt that Maxwell would want to change his style of play, but if he falls early, Kolkata could gain the psychological advantage.
Gautam Gambhir and Yusuf Pathan vs Mitchell Johnson
Gambhir's form with the bat, despite three fifties in this year's IPL, has been scratchy. He has looked tentative early on and the manner in which he deals with Mitchell Johnson will determine how long he stays at the crease. Pathan, who tormented a bowler of Dale Steyn's calibre, will be eager to repeat his performance against Johnson. How the Aussie plans to counter Yusuf's gameplay will be one to watch out for.
These two sides have an interesting head-to-head story this season. When they first met at Abu Dhabi, Kolkata made heavy weather of a paltry target of 133 and were eventually skittled out for 109, 23 runs short of the target. When the teams met again, they kept Punjab down to 149 and their batsmen went about the chase with the serenity of a few monks, registering a comprehensive nine-wicket victory.
Their third meeting came in the first qualifier, when Kolkata successfully defended a total of 163, restricting a nervy Punjab side to 135. Punjab looked distraught after that loss but were a completely different side when they knocked Chennai out in a thrilling run-fest at Mumbai on Friday.
Come Sunday at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, it will be the clash between the aggression and intent of the Kings XI Punjab against the grit and resolve of the Kolkata Knight Riders. Will team from the City of Joy bag their second title in three years? Or will Kings XI Punjab win their first? We will have to wait and watch.