IPL 2013 Eliminator: Resurgent Sunrisers Hyderabad face embattled Rajasthan Royals
Neither of the Rajasthan or the Hyderabad teams held a press conference, clearly having no appetite to answer ever-more uncomfortable questions about the spot-fixing debacle that is sure to drag in more names over the coming weeks.
Rajasthan Royals had two away games to ensure a place in the top two, and two bites at the final cherry. Somewhere between the first - which they lost in Mumbai - and the second, another defeat in Hyderabad, their hitherto fairytale season ceased to be about cricket. The spot-fixing scandal not only took the sheen off their performances, but it also deprived them of three bowlers who had played parts of varying significance in their campaign till then.
They didn't even arrive in Delhi till late on Tuesday (May 21), opting for a morning training session at their home base in Jaipur instead. Sunrisers Hyderabad also trained away from the Feroz Shah Kotla, at a school in central Delhi. Neither team held a press conference, clearly having no appetite to answer ever-more uncomfortable questions about a debacle that is sure to drag in more names over the coming weeks.
Hyderabad started the season rank outsiders, most of their squad drawn from the extinct Deccan Chargers, champions in 2009, but wretched performers in both 2011 and 2012. The fit-again Shikhar Dhawan bolstered their batting in the latter stages of the league, but it was still incredibly flaky. Their bowling, however, was consistently excellent, allowing them to ease past a stalling Bangalore in the final week of the season.
When he hasn't picked up wickets, Dale Steyn has kept batsmen quiet and on the back foot, while Ishant Sharma's failure to maintain the standards he set in the first fortnight have been offset to a large extent by Amit Mishra's consistency. Cameron White, whose hitting ability has come to the fore on a few occasions, has led with verve and imagination, and they will be dangerous floaters in the playoffs, just as they were in 2009, when the powerful bats of Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds blasted the Chargers to title glory.
Rajasthan have not scaled these heights since the inaugural season. Like Hyderabad, they have been well led. Rahul Dravid has delivered the odd telling innings, but it's on the field that he's really caught the eye, marshalling a bowling attack without any especially potent weapons other than James Faulkner, the tournament's leading wicket-taker.
Shane Watson's return to bowling fitness has helped, but the key has been an attacking mindset geared towards taking wickets. Domestic stalwarts like Siddharth Trivedi have excelled themselves, and bargain signings like Kevon Cooper have developed a happy knack of coming good ever so often.
Ajinkya Rahane has rediscovered his batting form after a minor slump, but it's the experienced hands that are central to Rajasthan's fortunes. Watson has pedigree on the biggest limited-overs stages, while Brad Hodge is a Twenty20 legend. Stuart Binny has grown into the role of a late-innings finisher, while Sanju Samson was threatening to be the story of the Rajasthan season until three of his teammates disgraced themselves.
Hyderabad have shown themselves more than capable of defending small totals, while Rajasthan have quite a record when it comes to chasing big ones. When they met late in the season, it was the defenders who prevailed.
Rajasthan's fortunes will depend very much on their state of mind. What happened with Sreesanth and the others could affect them in two different ways. Either they'll be too frazzled to focus on something as trivial as a game of cricket, or they'll use these playoffs as a welcome distraction from the investigation that may involve more of them in the coming days.
As the name suggests, the Eliminator leaves no margin for error. Lose, and your season is over. Hyderabad have already shown that they can handle knockout pressure. It remains to be seen whether the embattled Rajasthan, the neutral's team for so much of the tournament, can do the same.