A little over a week back, when Rajasthan Royals travelled to play Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium on May 15, all was well with the world of the Indian Premier League. IPL 2013 seemed headed for an exciting on-field finish, the controversies of years gone by a distant memory. Then, all hell broke loose.
The arrests in Mumbai early the following morning of S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan for their supposed involvement in spot-fixing opened up a can of worms, revealing a potential trail of ill-gotten gains that threatens once again to undermine the world's most lucrative, envied and pilloried domestic T20 league. A week is indeed a long time in competitive sport, but the show must go on.
It's against this backdrop of police investigations and enquries, of arrests and interrogations, of innuendo and whisper campaigns, that the two teams come face to face again, in the penultimate game of IPL VI. Cricket has almost been relegated to a sideshow in the last couple of weeks, notwithstanding two cracking playoff contests. Hopefully, it will re-assume centre stage at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Friday (May 24) when Mumbai and Rajasthan go head to head, with a date in the final against Chennai Super Kings on the line.
For all the alleged indiscretions of their misguided trio, Rajasthan will begin as sentimental favourites, simply because of the courage, resolve and dignity with which they have handled themselves in the aftermath of the triple arrests. They couldn't have asked for a better leader of men to guide the ship through choppy waters. When Rahul Dravid said it was like "a bereavement in some ways", you couldn't help but want to put an arm around his shoulder. But then again, this is the man who has put his arm around every shoulder, young and old, within the Rajasthan ranks, encouraging and coaxing and cajoling them to leave off-field stuff off the field and get on with it when Rajasthan squared off against Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Eliminator in New Delhi on Wednesday.
The four-wicket win against Hyderabad was Rajasthan's first victory in three attempts since the spot-fixing revelations emerged. It's a win that has energised the team hugely; they will start overwhelming underdogs against a formidable, power-packed Mumbai outfit, only a brave man will totally write them off.
While there already have been, and will continue to be, many fallouts of the spot-fixing expose, there has also been one immediate cricketing fallout which was obvious at the Kotla on Wednesday (May 22). The team balance has gone for a toss with the non-availability of Chandila and Chavan, their two frontline Indian spinners. With Praveen Tambe, the 41-year-old leg-spinner, also out injured, Rajasthan had to cobble together an all-pace attack on a pitch that called for at least one specialist spinner. They got away against Hyderabad, but against a more rounded team like Mumbai, they could be caught short if the conditions at the Eden continue to remain what they have been all tournament long.
Rajasthan might be a "moneyball" team, as Dravid put it, but they aren't as unlikely a success story as is being made out. In Shane Watson, they possess one of the premier allrounders in world cricket while no man has scored more Twenty20 runs in the world than Brad Hodge, the hero in their triumph over Hyderabad. Ajinkya Rahane is a proven Twenty20 performer, Stuart Binny is a proven force in Indian domestic cricket, Dravid - on the wrong side of 40 - has consistently addressed the demands of the three-hour game, while James Faulkner's possession of the Purple Cap is no accident. It's just that when you compare these names against those in the opposition - Mumbai in this instance - it feels as if Rajasthan are relative lightweights.
Dwayne Smith, Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik, Kieron Pollard, Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell Johnson and Lasith Malinga - they make for an array of riches any team would love to possess. This is a team that can't find a place for Glenn Maxwell, the million-dollar man. This is a team that has consistently left out Ricky Ponting, its captain for the season, because it cant squeeze him in, given the four-foreigner rule. And this is a team that has made light of the absence of Sachin Tendulkar, clearly batting from memory but striking meaningful form towards the end of the league phase before an unfortunate wrist injury surfaced.
Tendulkar has missed the last three matches and is a doubtful starter on Friday (May 24), but even so, Mumbai have most bases covered. For a team that has always had a glittering array of stars, Mumbai have been supreme underachievers in IPL cricket, having made the final just once in five previous tilts. They will quietly fancy their chances this time around, but will also be mindful of the minefield that stares them in the face in the form of a Rajasthan side with nothing to lose.
Mumbai Indians: Dwayne Smith, Aditya Tare (wk), Dinesh Karthik (wk), Rohit Sharma (capt), Kieron Pollard, Ambati Rayudu, Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga, Pragyan Ojha, Munaf Patel, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Glenn Maxwell, Rishi Dhawan, Aiden Blizzard, Nathan Coulter-Nile, James Franklin, Phillip Hughes, Jacob Oram, Abu Nechim Ahmed, Pawan Suyal, Jasprit Bumrah, Amitoze Singh, Yuzvendra Chahal, Sushant Marathe, Akshar Patel, Jalaj Saxena, Suryakumar Yadav.
Rajasthan Royals: Rahul Dravid (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, Shane Watson, Dishant Yagnik (wk), Stuart Binny, Sanju Samson (wk), Brad Hodge, James Faulkner, Kevon Cooper, Siddharth Trivedi, Vikramjeet Malik, Sachin Baby, Owais Shah, Rahul Shukla, Kumar Boresa, Fidel Edwards, Samuel Badree, Shreevats Goswami (wk), Harmeet Singh, Brad Hogg, Ashok Menaria, Kushal Perera, Shaun Tait, Praveen Tambe.