It's a classic confrontation - the most successful team in the history of the competition, against the best team never to have won the title. It ought to have been the major talking point in the lead-up to the final of Pepsi IPL 2013, but events off the field have seized such control of the mind that the title clash between Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Sunday (May 26) has become almost an afterthought.
As if the arrest of three players for their alleged involvement in spot-fixing a little under 10 days back wasn't bad enough, unfolded the unedifying drama of sleaze and corruption and betting, leading to the midnight arrest in Mumbai on Friday of Gurunath Meiyappan, the team principal, CEO and/or owner of Chennai Super Kings who isn't, we are now officially told, any of these.
It is impossible for the Chennai team, riding the crest of a wave until a few days back when they sealed their berth in the final in the most emphatic manner possible, not to remain unaffected by these developments. On the face of it, the team is putting on a brave front, but there is no doubting that several key players have been deeply shaken by the events of the last couple of days, and are struggling not to be caught up in a web of disillusionment. Game of numbers
In what state of mind the Chennai outfit steps on the park on Sunday evening will determine what kind of a contest unfolds at the Eden, at its fullest a veritable cauldron that can either lift or sink a team, depending on who the crowd is behind. Friday's Qualifier 2 wasn't too warmly received - it was a Friday night, there was rain in the air, Kolkata Knight Riders had long since been sent packing and the shadow of the last few days hung menacingly overhead - but word is that the final is a sell-out. Should that be the case, with an ululating crowd driving them on, the players will hope to feed off the inevitable adrenaline rush, temporarily forgetting the travails that have dogged the competition in its climactic stages.
Chennai have been the team to beat in the IPL. The two-time champions have won two titles, have made the final three other times - including this season - and their worst result was a semifinal appearance, in the second edition in South Africa in 2009. One of the prime reasons for their continued success has been a settled combination for almost the entire six seasons. They retained four key players at the end of the 2010 tournament, and bought back several others at the auction which followed, ensuring that the core group remained undisturbed. Furthermore, they have made some significant acquisitions since the only time the two teams clashed in the final, at the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai in 2010.
Not least of them has been Dwayne Bravo, locked in a battle for the Purple Cap with James Faulkner, both with 28 wickets to date. Bravo has chipped in with handy late-order runs, taken spectacular catches and provided memorable moments with his impromptu dances, but the engine room of the team has been Michael Hussey. Retired from international cricket, Hussey has shown no signs of rust, equally adept in shoring up the innings as he is in shedding the shackles and cutting loose. He and Suresh Raina, at No. 3, have continued to strike up a wonderful tandem, batting with the freedom and the knowledge that in Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Bravo and Albie Morkel, they have batting firepower that is the envy of all other teams in the competition. Dhoni skips press conference
Their bowling hasn't been as awe-inspiring, teams adopting circumspection when it comes to handling R Ashwin and therefore nullifying his wicket-taking threat, but Chennai have found a man for every occasion, Chris Morris providing them with a cutting edge that in earlier seasons came from the likes of Doug Bollinger, Ben Hilfenhaus and, sporadically, Dirk Nannes, and Mohit Sharma emerging the surprise package with his medium pace with the new ball. Chennai have always been a wonderful fielding outfit, and would have begun overwhelming favourites against most other teams.
Mumbai, though, are cut from almost the same cloth, even if IPL success has proved elusive. Man for man, they can match Chennai for firepower in batting and bowling, and are an equally brilliant fielding side, so there is very little to choose between the teams. Even in motivation stakes, there is very little to separate them; Chennai need the title to act as a balm, Mumbai are desperate to match talent and money spent with silverware. Only a brave man would take a punt - or, maybe, only a foolish one, given the events of the last few days.
Mumbai had the better of the exchanges when the teams squared off in the two league matches, winning both at home and away, but it was Chennai who came out trumps in Qualifier 1, winning by a mile at the Kotla in New Delhi. Sunday is a fresh start, with past records, history and head-to-heads counting for little. If Mumbai sense the slightest hint of vulnerability in the beleaguered opposition's ranks, they will step in and deliver the killer punch, but Chennai have worn resilience, as much as anything else, as their calling card all these years.