IPL: Battle of equals as in-form KKR take on SRH in first qualifier

Royal Challengers Bengaluru will have their tails up against a slipping Rajasthan Royals

KKR's farewell lap at Eden Gardens, Kolkata (photo: @KKRiders/X)
KKR's farewell lap at Eden Gardens, Kolkata (photo: @KKRiders/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

At the end of the day, two of the best equipped and hungriest teams of IPL 2024, in Kolkata Knight Riders and Sunrisers Hyderabad, have qualified as the top two for the play-offs after the marathon league stages concluded on Sunday. It will, however, be quite an ordeal for them to travel from different parts of the country to a sultry Ahmedabad and recover in less than 48 hours for the first qualifier on Tuesday.

Come Wednesday, and third placed Rajasthan Royals will take on Royal Challengers Bengaluru in the eliminator. RR, after being perched among the top two for most of the league, have only themselves to blame for sliding to four defeats in a row, and then rains depriving them of a chance to better their points tally from 17.

It has been a near-perfect campaign for KKR, who lost the least number of games (three) to finish on top of the table for the first time in the league’s history, with 20 points. Their only point of regret could be missing out on some valuable game time ahead of the first knockout game as rains played spoilsport with two of their last games in different parts of the country.

SRH, on the other hand, chased down another 200-plus total in their last game against Punjab Kings at home, and would like to bank on their gung go style of batting against the Knights again.

If there are any worrying factors for the Knights camp, it’s the departure of England opener Phil Salt — who had to leave to be a part of their T20 series against Pakistan as a build-up for the World T20 next month. Drafted in as a late replacement for Jason Roy, the wicketkeeper-batter provided the X-factor in the powerplays with Sunil Narine — giving the team explosive starts and scoring 429 runs in his debut season.

There is a possibility of Ramanullah Gurbaz, the Afghanistan opener who was quite impressive last season, filling in as it would also ensure continuity in terms of a right-hand combination. The other issue, of course, is whether the high-value Mitchell Starc — their fast bowling bowler — can come to his own in the home stretch.

The SRH opening pair of Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma, with the latter having reinvented himself in the new role, has really put the fear of god in rival bowlers. It’s their prowess, not to speak of the middle power firepower of Heinrich Klaasen, Aiden Markram and the homegrown Nitish Reddy, which propelled the Orange Shirts to some awesome batting performances throughout the season, so it won’t be surprising if the Knights try to put the brakes by using Narine upfront.

If the qualifier can be billed as a battle of equals, the eliminator will see RCB trying to ride the crest of a memorable campaign that they have enjoyed in the second phase of the league. They have, as the cliché goes, come back from the dead with a six-out-of-six record and held their nerve when it mattered the most against five-time champions Chennai Super Kings to squeeze in as the fourth team at the top.

Rajasthan Royals, who hardly put a foot wrong in the first half of the season, have looked vulnerable of late. They have sorely missed Jos Buttler and Yashasvi Jaiswal, Indian cricket’s man of the moment till the IPL began, looked too anxious to get to blazing starts and fell to some poor shot selection. Both he and skipper Sanju Samson really have to come out with something extraordinary at crunch-time if they want to dream about reaching the final.

Over then, to Narendra Modi Stadium for two crackers over next couple of days…

Catch the match

Qualifier 1, Tuesday

KKR vs SRH (Ahmedabad, 7.30 pm)

Eliminator, Wednesday

RR vs RCB (Ahmedabad, 7.30 pm)

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