When the IPL came to a halt in May, Kolkata Knight Riders were gripped by Covid, gripped by the fear of losing their wickets, gripped by opponents' bowlers in the powerplay and gripped by surfaces that didn't aid their game. Their approach was far from the blueprint Brendon McCullum was trying to imbibe.
Needing to win virtually every game in the second half, they hoped they would be able to invoke the spirit of 2014, where they went on a bull run - going from two wins from seven to winning every single game from there on - to lift the trophy. They haven't come close to winning the cup since, but four weeks into the UAE leg, they are a step away from the miracle they were trying to draw crumbs of comfort from, after being isolated in their hotel rooms in Ahmedabad in May.
Their opponents, Chennai Super Kings, have been there and done that so many times now that approaching a final doesn't seem new anymore. The hurt of having not qualified for the playoffs for the first time, in 2020, seems to have been a big turning point in terms of the direction they have taken. From the chop-change of last year to change-only-if-needed mantra, they look as settled and calm as a side can come during a knockout, knowing very well how to put together all the pieces of their jigsaw blindfolded.
Deepak Chahar: new ball. Ruturaj Gaikwad: anchor. Faf du Plessis: enforcer. Robin Uthappa: aggressor. Dwayne Bravo: death bowling. Josh Hazlewood: hard lengths. MS Dhoni? Magic. Of the kind from four days ago, when he got the better of Avesh Khan when it came to a one-on-one battle, under pressure, of the kind he has thrived on for so many years. This being the last game before the mega auction is sure to elicit emotions. The "Dad's Army" will possibly be playing together for one final time. There won't be a better way to go out than with the cup.
It's a game between a side that hasn't lost a final against one that makes so many that they treat all of them like just another game. It's a contest between two World Cup-winning captains who have been far from their best with the bat. Dhoni provided glimpses of the old Dhoni earlier in the week. Will an out-of-form Eoin Morgan have the last laugh here?
In the news
Shakib Al Hasan, a two-time IPL winner with Knight Riders, will be available for the game. His participation needed some sort of a sign-off from the BCB, given he will have to leave for Oman, where Bangladesh open their T20 World Cup campaign against Scotland less than 48 hours after the IPL final. The only call Knight Riders may have to make is picking between Shakib and Andre Russell, if fit.
For Super Kings, Suresh Raina may continue to sit out after having an indifferent tournament with the bat. Robin Uthappa, who hit a sparkling half-century in the previous game, is expected to retain his place in what could be an unchanged XI.
Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Venkatesh Iyer, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Nitish Rana, 4 Rahul Tripathi, 5 Eoin Morgan (capt), 6 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 7 Shakib Al Hasan, 8 Sunil Narine, 9 Shivam Mavi, 10 Varun Chakravarthy, 11 Lockie Ferguson
Chennai Super Kings: 1 Ruturaj Gaikwad, 2 Faf du Plessis, 3 Moeen Ali, 4 Robin Uthappa, 5 Ambati Rayudu, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 MS Dhoni (capt, wk), 8 Dwayne Bravo, 9 Shardul Thakur, 10 Deepak Chahar, 11 Josh Hazlewood
One of the reasons for Super Kings' resurgence this season is their partnership of Gaikwad and du Plessis, whose 1150 runs together is the most by an opening pair. Knight Riders need to find a way to disturb this. du Plessis has gone at 137.2 in the powerplay so far this season. Against fast bowlers, this strike rate goes a notch higher (141.86) in the first six. Perhaps Morgan can look to find a way out by introducing spin early, with Sunil Narine who has a favourable match-up against du Plessis, having dismissed him twice recently, while conceding at a strike rate of just 67 in the 9.1 overs he has bowled to him.
Gaikwad is in the midst of a prolific season, having been the only batter to top 400-plus runs in the UAE leg of the tournament, and is 24 short of upstaging KL Rahul for most runs this season. Surely, he can't have too many weaknesses, right? Well, there is one grey area that hasn't been exploited much. Teams have only bowled 19 short or short-of-length balls to him, three of which have resulted in wickets. So raw pace, short and into the body is the way to go upfront against Gaikwad and Knight Riders have a readymade option in Lockie Ferguson to try and exploit this weakness.
Stats that matter
Knight Riders have restricted their opponents to under 140 in five of the six games they have bowled first in the UAE leg of IPL 2021.
The team chasing has won the last eight games in Dubai.
Moeen has been the most economical spinner so far this season, going at just 6.4, better than the likes of Varun Chakravarthy and Narine.
Super Kings have a 100% chasing record this season, winning six out of six. Only Mumbai Indians (2020) have gone through an entire season without a loss in chases (barring one in Super Over).