The seventh edition of the Indian Premier League, which started under the dark shadow of match-fixing, is ready with two of its best teams in the form of Kolkata Knight Riders and Kings XI Punjab poised to battle one final time in the grand finale. The match has already been billed by experts as one of the most interesting title clashes in recent times.
The IPL this year, despite the early suspicion, did produce some quality cricket in games spanned across two nations in energy sapping conditions. Both teams boast of co-owners, who enjoy superstar-like status in the Indian film industry. While Kings XI Punjab are co-owned by Preity Zinta, one of the most glamorous actresses in Bollywood, Kolkata Knight Riders have the Bollywood Badshah Shah Rukh Khan as one of its co-owners. With all the talk of the erstwhile Veer-Zaara protagonists dominating the social networking sphere, it will still be the players in the middle, who will have to battle each other in a star-studded contest.
We look at five of the most keenly awaited contests in the final at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore:
Virender Sehwag vs Robin Uthappa: Two India discards and two fiercely aggressive openers, Sehwag and Uthappa came into the tournament with loads of points to prove. Sehwag, out of favour with the Indian selectors since early 2013, battled poor form and slowing reflexes to give the Kings XI Punjab lightning starts for the likes of Glenn Maxwell and David Miller to capitalize on later. The Nawab of Najafgarh, struck hard by jibes from his son's friends, reserved his best for the virtual semi-final, where his power-packed hundred 58-ball 122 fired KXIP to their first-ever IPL final. Robin Uthappa meanwhile reinvented himself this year and slammed 655 runs from 15 games for the Knight Riders. His rich vein of form included a record ten successive scores of over 40. The Karnataka batsman, under the tutelage of former Mumbai coach and India player Pravin Amre was a transformed cricketer. However, while Uthappa's golden run earned him a recall to the Indian ODI side, Sehwag's short but quick starts failed to impress the wise men of Indian cricket. The final could therefore be a direct clash between two of the country's most destructive openers and rest assured, each man will hold they key to his team's fortunes. A great start by Sehwag is guaranteed to put KXIP in the driver's seat while Uthappa's ability to settle down and play the long innings in the trickiest of chases will keep the Knight Riders optimistic.
Gautam Gambhir vs George Bailey: There is a stark contrast in the way the two men approach their cricket. Gautam Gambhir is mostly hard-pressed to smile while George Bailey is as cheerful as they come. Morne Morkel had gone on record saying how scared he was of his grumpy KKR skipper while Bailey's bowlers continuously talk of how relaxed they are around their captain. However, despite different personalities, both men have got what they were looking for: a spot in the final. Gambhir's intense, brooding persona has been like a double-edged sword for Kolkata but it has seemed to work for them over the last three years. Two finals in three editions is not a bad achievement at all. The IPL final is usually a tense affair for the players and owners and Bailey's calm presence on the field could work well for the Kings XI if the going gets tough. Both captains have shrewd cricketing brains and are blessed with some great T20 talent and so there will no space for either to relax.
Sunil Narine vs Mitchell Johnson: Crafty spin vs tearway pace. Both could come undone on the small Bangalore stadium but not when these two skills are in the hands of men named Narine and Johnson. It is not very often that either the West Indian spin wizard or the Australian express has been taken to the cleaners, irrespective of the size of the ground and the flatness of the pitch.
Narine of course had to take a huge decision when he chose his IPL side KKR over the West Indian Test side in order to be available for the IPL final and he will be determined to put up a sterling show. His four overs could ultimately prove to be the difference between the two sides. The off-spinner bowls economically and has the knack of taking wickets at regular intervals, as his 20 wickets from 15 matches show.
Johnson on the other hand, has been on the expensive side for KXIP but he has struck early consistently. With 15 wickets from 13 games, the Australian left-arm seamer has been lethal. Johnson's greatest asset is his ability to shake up batsmen with sheer pace. If he can do that to Uthappa and Gambhir and snare a few early ones, it will be half the battle won for the Kings XI.
KKR's firepower in batting lies at the top while KXIP boast of their run scorers in the middle order. Both Johnson and Narine, therefore will get the chance to have a crack at the best of the opponents. Who will emerge triumphant?
Shakib Al Hasan vs David Miller: Two left-handed batsmen, Shakib and Miller go about their jobs with a silent professionalism and have been great team players. Both men have given their sides the much needed impetus in the middle overs with some brisk knocks under pressure. While Shakib prefers to look for gaps in the field before taking the aerial route, KXIP's South African talent, Miller knows only one way of playing: if it's in the arc, it's out of the park.
Miller's 445 runs this season from 15 games is testimony to his T20 skills. He knows exactly when to break free and does that with an alarming consistency.
Shakib of course has been brilliant with both bat and ball for Kolkata; 215 runs and 11 wickets from 12 games have made him one of the hottest properties in this IPL. The former Bangladesh captain is a good reader of the game and has enough talent to play second fiddle or steer chases, depending on the situation. If either of Miller or Shakib gets to spend a decent amount of time in the end overs, the opposition could be looking at a stiff chase in the title clash.
Yusuf Pathan vs Glenn Maxwell: Two of the most explosive batsmen in the IPL, Yusuf Pathan and Glenn Maxwell have inflicted telling blows this year. While Maxwell started out with a bang, before withering away towards the second half of the tournament, Yusuf blasted 72 off 22 balls to help the Knight Riders finish second on the table in the group stages, ahead of Chennai Super Kings. That was of course the only noteworthy performance by Yusuf but at least KKR know he is peaking at the right time.
Maxwell meanwhile has not scored another half-century since his blazing 90 against Chennai Super Kings. It has been eight innings now that he has failed to do anything worthwhile and KXIP would be hoping for him to turn it on in the final. It won't be easy for the Australian as he will be faced against a powerful KKR attack.
Yusuf's big-hitting prowess will also be key for the Knight Riders and if he can clear a few balls out of the small Chinnaswamy Stadium, KKR could be looking at a big total on the ground for the likes of Narine, Morkel and Umesh Yadav to defend.
Out of Maxwell and Yusuf, the player who wins the sixes battle over the other will be almost certain to lay his hands on the glittering IPL trophy.
May the best man win! For indeed, a game of T20 cricket could be determined by one player as Sehwag showed on Friday night.