IPL 2022: Gujarat vs Rajasthan Qualifier promises to be a humdinger

Rajasthan Royals were not too far behind Gujarat in the league phase, writes Ayaz Memon

By Ayaz Memon

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The battle between Gujarat Titans champion leg-spinner Rashid Khan and Rajasthan Royals captain Sanju Samson will be key in the middle overs. (BCCI)
The battle between Gujarat Titans champion leg-spinner Rashid Khan and Rajasthan Royals captain Sanju Samson will be key in the middle overs. (BCCI)

Published: Tue 24 May 2022, 12:19 AM

Bionic T20 action is expected in the first playoff as the two most exciting teams this year square off tonight. Both Gujarat Titans and Rajasthan Royals have played dazzling cricket. Aggression, experimentation and improvisation — in tactics, batting and bowling — have defined their performances, setting them apart from the eight other teams.

Gujarat Titans have been remarkable in their inaugural season. Lucknow Super Giants, the second new franchise in the IPL, have had a wonderful run too, qualifying for the playoffs despite running into hurdles towards the end of the league stage. But Titans have been the more impressive team.

Losing only four matches and finishing on top in the points table is vindication of how everything has fallen into place for a side that wasn’t considered too hot when the tournament began.

The collection of talent looked good, particularly the acquisition of champion leg-spinner Rashid Khan, which was truly an inspired move. But how many other established match-winners besides him, Hardik Pandya and Matthew Wade did they have? Some other teams boasted more such talent.

Also, Hardik being made captain had even early well-wishers turn sceptical. Pandya’s experience in a leadership role was virtually zero. Moreover, the last 12-18 months had been harrowing for the all-rounder who spent most of this time nursing injury or in rehab. His comeback in the T20 World Cup had been controversial and ended in him losing his place in the Indian team.

In the eight weeks since the tournament began, Pandya has overcome all the odds to put his team in a commanding position.

Under his captaincy, Titans began well, got better and recovered swiftly from a blip or two, to finish table-toppers.

It has been a commanding performance by the new team. While players obviously deserve plaudits for their effort, credit must also be given to the team management for astute selection in the mega-auction. And the captain and coaches for swiftly building up a culture that enabled players to perform at their best.

In most of the 10 matches Titans won, they did it in style. A few wins, in fact, were dragged from the jaws of defeat, thanks to the incredible self-belief of players like Rahul Tewatia, David Miller and Rashid Khan. It was not just exhilarating batting that helped the Titans reach where they are now, but also the bowling. Rashid was brilliant once again and Mohammed Shami was exceptional too, getting wickets unfailingly in the PowerPlays.

Lockie Ferguson was frequently testing the speed gun to challenge Umran Malik, while young fast bowler Yash Dayal showed fine promise, constantly learning from the senior pros, getting better with each match.

What stood out in the Titans campaign was that the team wasn’t entirely dependent on the big stars. For instance, when Wade got injured, Wriddhiman Saha stepped in as a dashing opener and made enough runs to compensate even for Shubman Gill’s modest scores.

Rajasthan Royals were not too far behind Gujarat in the league phase. From the first match to the last, RR looked like a well-balanced, well-rounded team – perhaps the best of the 10 teams in the fray. They have not just taken a place in the playoffs but marched ahead of Lucknow Super Giants to finish second on points and give themselves two opportunities to reach the final.

Since the start of the IPL in 2008, RR have been an enigmatic team. Under the charismatic captaincy of the late Shane Warne, a bunch of rookies and modestly known players pulled off a stunning upset to win the title against all odds.

However, in the 14 seasons since, RR have flattered to deceive, playing attractive cricket at all times, but never quite looking a champion side despite paying big money to hire marquee names at various times.

While RR players have always believed in flair and an adventurous approach, they also frequently lapsed into self-indulgence. This led to inconsistent results and often early exits from the tournament, belying the rich potential of the team.

This is where Rajasthan have been different this season. The approach on the ground is still defined by intrepidity and panache of old, but it’s laced now with greater responsibility and accountability. The ambition this time, it seems, is not just to entertain, but also to win matches, and also the tournament.

Like the Titans and the Super Giants, Rajasthan too reaped the benefits of strategic selection in the mega auction. Those retained from the previous season were Jos Buttler, Sanju Samson and Yashasvi Jaiswal.

To this exciting batting, trio were added players of proven calibre like Ravi Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal, Trent Boult, Shimron Hetmyer, Prasidh Krishna which gave the team not just a truly international flavour, but experience to complement youth, variety and depth in both batting and bowling. Rajasthan have reaped rich rewards as all these players have been in top form.

It’s a clash of equals and promises to be a humdinger at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Tuesday.

Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator

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