When Gujarat Titans (GT) met Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in this season’s Indian Premier League (IPL) opener in late March, the question was whether a young and fledgling outfit could hold up against an onslaught from a proven winner.
It didn’t matter that GT was the defending champion, having seen only growth during every moment of its existence since late 2021. CSK, despite appearing to have lost its mojo a bit after finishing ninth in the previous edition, was seen as a wounded tiger on the prowl.
Two months since the two will meet on an equal footing in the grand finale at the Narendra Modi Stadium on Sunday. They sparred in Qualifier 1 just days ago in Chennai, a match CSK won by 15 runs. But it’s the summit clash that will have a definitive feel to it, for it will crown this season’s best.
The dynamics of team competitions don’t quite allow for situations like in individual sports such as tennis where talented upstarts would want to topple their predecessors and not so much wander into a void that’s left.
But a victory for Hardik Pandya, widely touted as India’s next limited-overs helmsman, over the timelessly brilliant M.S. Dhoni, without doubt the nation’s best-ever white-ball captain, will come close.
Hardik has enough talent at his disposal to achieve that. Shubman Gill leads the IPL run-getters chart (851 runs), while Mohammed Shami, Rashid Khan and Mohit Sharma are atop the wicket-takers’ list with 28, 27 and 24 scalps respectively.
The way GT bounced back from the defeat to CSK to pummel Mumbai Indians on Friday spoke volumes about the side’s mental makeup. Having already experienced a final last year, also in Ahmedabad, GT is unlikely to suffer from stage fright, though a sophomore’s test can be tricky.
On the other hand, CSK is a four-time titlist. It may have lost five finals, but Dhoni’s isn’t quite the side that will be weighed down by the emotional baggage.
The greying, and yet sharp, talisman is like an outsized blotting paper that absorbs all the excess ink so that the pen can keep scripting success stories. Even the constant chatter around the 41-year-old’s retirement hasn’t affected the team.
“It is pretty easy when you have a superstar who does the job so well,” said Stephen Fleming, on match-eve. “That’s allowed us to work below the surface and just be a foil for him when he needs some advice or support.”
“He is like the rest of the players, his form goes up and down. But what he is very consistent with is the tone that he sets. Some of our secrets…continuity of people, belief in players and calmness under pressure…these are traits that come from him and we are able to add to that.”
The likes of Devon Conway (625 runs) and Ruturaj Gaikwad (564) have revelled, while Ravindra Jadeja, after last year’s captaincy fiasco, has quietly come into his own. And in pacer Matheesha Pathirana, CSK looks to have unearthed a gem.
Thus on Sunday, excellence won’t be in short supply. But it’s perfection that wins crunch matches.