Sreenath Aravind (left) and Chris Gayle © AFP
Sreenath Aravind (left) and Chris Gayle © AFP


By Jamie Alter


And so, after 70 matches and 44 days, we have got past the league phase and into the knock-offs. We now know who will play who on Tuesday at the Wankhede Stadium in the first Qualifier, and it promises to be a cracker of a match.


Royal Challengers Bangalore’s eight-wicket thrashing of Chennai Super Kings secured them the top spot on the table, and hours later Kolkata Knight Riders lost the plot to end up stunned losers after Ambati Rayudu hit the final ball of the match for six to seal an unforgettable win for Mumbai Indians. That defeat made CSK a very, very lucky team to stay at second place. They will now face RCB for the third time in 2011.


Both sides have stitched together successful campaigns in different ways: RCB have been injected plenty of oomph by Chris Gayle to go with the dazzle of Virat Kohli and surprise ability of Sreenath Aravind; CSK have been carried by the workmanlike efforts of the core players retained during the off-season.


RCB have been the form team over the second half of the tournament. Their resurgence, after three straight losses, owes much to the arrival of Gayle. Simply, there has been no better entertainer this season than Gayle. His assaults on hapless bowlers have been the stand-out feature of IPL 2011, and his ever-present smile has been the success story of the season. How welcome he has been made to feel by Vijay Mallya is all too evident, and the results have been spectacular.


Gayle began with a ballistic century against KKR, and since then has amassed over 500 runs in just nine innings. There have been five Man-of-the-Match awards and just one failure which, incidentally, was the first game RCB lost since Gayle showed up. That defeat, to Kings XI Punjab in Dharamsala, snapped a record seven-match winning streak.


Back home in front of a packed house, Gayle and RCB got their act together and knocked off CSK. The win sets them up nicely for Tuesday, and as Gayle and Kohli and Daniel Vettori said after the win, it was a good sign to go into knock-offs on.


Gayle has been epic for RCB, but the contributions of Kohli (444 runs) and Aravind (16 wickets) have been immense as well. Kohli has carried the top order alongside Gayle, offering stability to Gayle’s belligerent approach. When the top order struggled, Kohli chipped in with consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards and his form helped overshadow the non-performances of Tillakaratne Dilshan and AB de Villiers. His fielding has also been special, with some catches taken in the deep that were made to look much simpler than they were.


Aravind, a local bowler for Karnataka, has impressed this season. Given plenty of playing time, he has stepped up whenever he has been called on to bowl. His left-arm pace has largely proved hard to attack, and his changes of pace have been effective, most notably against KXIP in Bangalore when he took four wickets.


Aravind has hailed the influence of Zaheer Khan for a successful 2011 IPL campaign, and as RCB bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad said, though Zaheer hasn’t had a very successful season he has been a fine leader of the attack. This, in its own way, has played a role in the team’s success. Vettori too hasn’t been in the wickets majorly but his economy rate (5.40) has been outstanding. More than once Vettori has been responsible for tying teams down at the start and reining them in after strong platforms had been laid – see RCB’s win over Kochi Tuskers Kerala in Bangalore or Sunday’s victory over CSK – and as a bowler and leader he has been typically shrewd.


On Tuesday, they will face a team which has been this far in the tournament three times and to the final twice. The decision to retain the core of the successful title-winning squad of 2010 has paid off for CSK. Michael Hussey (429 runs), Subramanian Badrinath (362), Suresh Raina (357), MS Dhoni (341) and Murali Vijay (334) have carried the might of the batting while Ravichandran Ashwin (16 wickets), Albie Morkel (15) and Doug Bollinger (15) have taken the bulk of the wickets. Nothing has changed since the past season, except that Badrinath has scored runs even more coolly and confidently than before, and Hussey has been the most dependable batsman.


CSK look like a champion side, and are rightfully this far in the competition. They know how to win, and especially at home where they have yet to lose this season. Dhoni has led as he always has, and the team overcame a shaky period to make the final four convincingly. CSK’s fielding has been among the best in the competition and that has made a big difference. But most of all, the fact that almost each player has contributed to the team’s success, allied to the fact that this team knows how to win under pressure, gives CSK a distinct psychological edge.


The manner in which Gayle delivered victory over CSK on Sunday gives Vettori’s team reason to feel like they can pull one over Dhoni and Co again. On Tuesday, RCB’s showmanship will clash with KKR’s grit. Which will triumph remains to be seen.


(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. He is the author of two books, The History of World Cup Cricket and Field of Dreams: The Story of the Dr. DY Patil Sports Stadium. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)