It might have taken almost three months and 132 league stage matches, but the PKL playoffs are finally upon us. Six teams are in contention to become champions while six others have been shunted aside.
So which teams have made it to the playoffs?
The teams that finished in the top six in the points table - Dabang Delhi KC, Bengal Warriors, UP Yoddha, U Mumba, Haryana Steelers and defending champions Bengaluru Bulls - will be in action in Ahmedabad in the playoffs stage.
What about the format?
Delhi and Bengal are already through to the semis by virtue of finishing first and second respectively, while UP (third) will face Bengaluru in Eliminator 1 and Mumba (fourth) face Haryana (fifth) in the second eliminator. The winner of eliminator 1 will face Delhi, with Bengal taking on the winner of eliminator 2 in the second semi-final.
Who are the favourites?
Delhi and Bengal have never made the final of the tournament in six previous seasons but it will be a big surprise if at least one of them is not in the final this year. Both these teams were exceptionally consistent in the league stage, with Delhi losing just four of their 22 matches.
Bengal's form heated up in the second half of the season as they lost just one of their last 10 matches, and if Maninder Singh is fully fit, they will be a good bet to go all the way.
What about the dark horses?
It might now seem inconceivable but UP were languishing in the wooden spoon position for a few days at the beginning of this season. With them having suffered many heavy defeats, their score difference was negative too.
However, just like last season, they overcame tough odds to enter the playoffs again. They will be looking to improve on their third-place finish from last season as their corner combination of captain Nitesh Kumar and Sumit is arguably the strongest among all teams this season.
They have defeated all the other teams that have made the playoffs at least once this season and their raiding trio of Rishank Devadiga, Monu Goyat and Shrikant Jadhav is among the most experienced with very good back-up in the form of Surender Gill.
Bengaluru finished sixth in the points table but if there is one player who can win a match single handedly, it is Pawan Kumar Sehrawat, who has shown impressive big-match temperament in the past and won them the final almost all on his own last season.
With the playoffs being a knockout format, Bengaluru would want Sehrawat to have three good days if they are to become the second team after Patna Pirates to successfully defend the PKL title.
Sehrawat might be top of the points table this season but Naveen Kumar has easily been the most consistent player, scoring a Super 10 in 20 of the 21 matches he has played this season. Unlike Sehrawat though, the teenager has very little big match experience and it will interesting to see if he can continue that remarkable streak of Super 10s in the playoffs as well.
Bengal made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons but failed to make the final and captain Maninder Singh would desperately want to change that. Maninder has only had 57 unsuccessful raids this season, easily the least among the top five scorers this season and his ability to assess situational needs will have to be at its best if Bengal are to break their jinx of not making the final.
Haryana's reliance on Vikash Kandola can be gauged from the fact that they have not lost a single match this season when Vikash has scored a Super 10. They looked poised to finish second or third for most of the league stage but a late-season slump - they won just three of their last seven matches - saw them slip to fifth in the points table.
It was U Mumba who took advantage of that slip to climb up to fourth and captain Fazel Atrachali was at the centre of that resurgence as he ended the league stage with the most tackle points. A two-time winner and four-time finalist, Atrachali is a proven performer and has had a lot of success as captain in the PKL. With Sandeep Narwal and the exciting Surinder Singh giving him company to form a mean defence, Mumba will fancy their chances against most opponents in the playoffs.
Eliminator 1: UP Yoddha v Bengaluru Bulls - UP Yoddha to win as Sehrawat has struggled against them in both matches this season, which Bengaluru went on to lose.
Eliminator 2: U Mumba v Haryana Steelers - U Mumba will start as favourites as they are not over-reliant on one or two players like Haryana, and Atrachali and Sandeep's experience will prove to be key.
Semi-final 1: If UP do win the eliminator, they are likely to face Delhi in the semis. While Delhi's form did slump in the later stages, they played a second-string team in their loss against UP. Naveen's superlative skills should see him trouble an inexperienced UP defence and Dabang Delhi KC might edge this one out in a close contest.
Semi-final 2: Bengal won both their matches against Mumba earlier this season but they were very close contests. Bengal's chances on progression might be incumbent on Maninder's fitness. If Maninder is fully fit, expect Bengal Warriors to reach their maiden final.
Final: No one would have predicted a Bengal-Delhi final at the start of the season but Bengal have been historically dominant against Delhi and they were the only team to not lose to them in the league stage this year. Do not be surprised to see Bengal Warriors emerge victorious this year after close misses in the last two seasons.