Saturday, May 28, Chennai
Start time 2000 (1430 GMT)
It's taken 73 games, but we're finally here. Seventy-three. Chew on that number for a moment. The IPL has had 50% more games than World Cup 2011, which was faulted for being too long. It's had 16 games more than the first three World Cups combined. The IPL has tested viewer appetite and player endurance to the limit, in the process turning the less-is-more norm on its head. The audience has spoken: there is only so much cricket India can take. The players have started breaking under the strain: several overseas signings flew home early, the India squad going to West Indies is severely depleted. Seventy-three is a big number.
The verdict, though, can wait until No. 74 is out of the way. An exciting knockout phase is capable of glossing over all the faults of a bloated tournament, and IPL 2011 has been fortunate on that front - Bangalore's hammering of Mumbai in the virtual semi-final notwithstanding. The impact of a good, well-contested final can be even more far-reaching. The success of the most recent World Cup, and the equally resounding failure of the one that preceded it, are quite closely linked to the manner in which the final moments of the respective events panned out. For three years running, the IPL final has been a closely fought game. Can 2011 continue the trend?
Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore are opponents capable of producing that gripping denouement. Going by where they finished in the league table, they are the two best sides in the tournament. Both sides have been incredibly consistent, which is a considerable achievement in a tournament that goes on forever. Skeptics will point at Bangalore's dependence on Chris Gayle, and Chennai's dependence on home advantage. The former is a disservice to Virat Kohli and Bangalore's well-rounded bowling attack, while the latter betrays a poor grasp of the roller-coaster ways of Twenty20 - winning seven games on the trot at the same venue in this format is no mean achievement, regardless of the conditions.
Chennai and Bangalore have a storied Twenty20 history: in the one season when Chennai did not make the final (2009), it was Bangalore who stopped them in the semis. Chennai returned the favour in Champions League 2010, hustling their South-Indian neighbours out of contention. This year, they have traded blows three times already, with Chennai leading 2-1.
IPL 2011 has thrown everything at us, and the feeling at the end of it all is one of gluttonous excess. A cracking final, witnessed by a full house, and featuring good cricket (and that doesn't always mean scores of 200 from both sides) might be a good way to sign off. A Super Over finish will be "just what the doctor ordered".
Form guide (most recent first)
Chennai Super Kings: WLWWW
Bangalore Royal Challengers: WLWLW
If Chennai go into the final with an unchanged XI, they will set a new IPL record for the maximum number of successive games without a replacement (six). The only uncertainty is over R Ashwin's availability, but indications are that he has fully recovered from the sickening blow he took on the head in the play-off. Chennai's combination has worked well in the lead-up to the big game, and even the weakest link - Wriddhiman Saha - has pulled his weight. The presence of Albie Morkel and Dwayne Bravo provides the side with immense depth, both with bat and ball. The one area they will want to improve on is their batting in the first six overs, where they either lose too many wickets or score too slowly.
Bangalore have looked under-strength in the lower-middle order right through the season, but it doesn't seem to affect them. Instead of worrying about it, they actually chose to drop a batsman for Syed Mohammad's left-arm spin against Mumbai, and it worked when he accounted for Sachin Tendulkar's big wicket. Saurabh Tiwary is due a big performance, but both he and Bangalore will hope they don't need it on Saturday.
In the spotlight
Zaheer Khan and big finals have an interesting relationship. In World Cup 2003, bad Zaheer turned up, bowled a horror opening over and India never recovered. In World Cup 2011, though, he cracked the game open with three exemplary opening overs - all maidens. Zaheer, who was playing for Mumbai in 2010, will remember messing up a crucial catch in that IPL final, allowing Suresh Raina to take Chennai to an eventually match-winning score. Will it be Dr Zaheer or Mr Khan turning up for revenge on Saturday?
The final is a good time for Suresh Raina to take stock of his career. It was the IPL's first edition that gave him a second chance at the India side, and he's never looked back since. Raina's IPL dominance is not founded upon any single watershed season. He has topped 400 runs in all four editions of the IPL; no one else has managed it even three times. Raina will, however, know that there is tougher work ahead. He will soon be leading a depleted ODI side in the West Indies, and after that might be required to stand up to the seaming and bouncing red ball. A strong finish to the IPL will set him up for the challenges to come.
S Badrinath will march out on Saturday with his head held high, looking back with a smile and satisfaction at a season of toil that has borne fruit. He's scored runs in every avenue available to an Indian domestic batsman, and in the IPL, he has been one of the few incentives for the purists tuning in. Before he leaves for the Caribbean, will he lean forward with assurance, drive through the line, brandish the high elbow, and end a memorable season in copybook style?
MS Dhoni has led teams to four major limited-overs titles - World Twenty20 2007, IPL 2010, Champions League 2010 and World Cup 2011. On each occasion, his campaign included one tied match. IPL 2011 has not had a single tie.
Chris Gayle has picked up six Man-of-the-Match awards this season, the most in a single IPL. The stat is further embellished by the fact that he's done so in just 11 games.
S Badrinath has scored the most half-centuries (five) this year. Gayle has passed 50 five times too, including two centuries.
"We have been playing well throughout and deserve to be in the final. Once we lost against Chennai, we were pumped up to see them in the finals."
Payback is clearly on Zaheer Khan's mind
"It is nice to be back at home. If we wanted to play final, it is certainly at home … Back-to-back games will be tough to play in Chennai."
Stephen Fleming makes it clear that home advantage and three days of rest ahead of the final makes his side the favourites.