They say a good start is half done. The saying holds especially true for Sunrisers Hyderabad who started IPL 2018 with a stellar outing on auction day. No other team managed to cover all their bases like the Sunrisers. They picked wisely, went for variety, picked backups for most spots, and wherever possible they backed up their backups too.
Any other team would have struggled after losing their captain who also happens to be the orange cap holder in two of the last three seasons, but Sunrisers started out their campaign looking like the most balanced unit in the competition and registered three wins in three games thanks mainly to their brilliant bowling attack.
While everyone expected Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rashid Khan to deliver, Sidharth Kaul turned out to be a dark horse in the Sunrisers rank. Kaul bowled with excellent control and gave an extra edge to the Sunrisers bowling unit as his newly developed knuckleball variation bamboozled the top names in the competition.
In their fourth and fifth games, the Sunrisers bowling attack came under the scanner against some top quality hitting by Chris Gayle and Ambati Rayudu. They went on to lose both the games. Undeterred, Williamson and his men came back strongly to register six wins in a row to become the first team to secure a place in the playoffs. Their standout game was against the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium where they dismissed Mumbai's much-vaunted batting line-up for a mere 89 runs while defending 118. The very next match, they defended another low total of 131 runs against the Kings XI Punjab. The Sunrisers have built a reputation for defending the indefensible. When teams start winning games from seemingly impossible situations, it creates a great sense of team spirit within the unit and an aura of invincibility for the opponents.
The Sunrisers Hyderabad team management understands the economics of IPL and T20 better than most teams. Their success over the past three seasons can be attributed to their investment in creating a strong bowling unit. It is simple to deduce that as the game condenses, the value proposition of bowlers increases. With just 120 balls to play, even if you pack your team with star batsmen, most of them will not get a chance to contribute. A star bowler, however, will make a contribution in every game with his four overs.
Most teams in the competition have a bowling attack comprising at least one or two average bowlers whom the captain is trying to hide all the time, trying to find a low-pressure situation to bowl them. The Hyderabad captain, on the other hand, knows that all his bowlers are capable of handling pressure and can be match winners on their days. This fact, combined with the natural attacking instincts of Kane Williamson, has allowed the team to go for wickets at all stages of the game. In death overs, Bhuvneshwar and Kaul have nailed more yorkers than anyone else in the competition, and their off pace variations always keep the batsmen guessing.
It's easy to get overawed by the oomph of Rashid Khan, Bhuvneshwar, Kaul and the rest of Sunrisers bowling attack and ignore their batting stars. Kane Williamson has probably scored the most valuable runs in the competition under pressure.
Shikhar Dhawan suffered an injury midway through the IPL, but after coming back he has found the kind of form that makes him one of the most destructive openers in limited-overs cricket. While the middle order for Sunrisers has been a little inconsistent, their lower order hitters, starting from Carlos Brathwaite all the way down to Rashid Khan, are all capable of changing the course of the game on their day. Back to full fitness, Wriddhiman Saha will float around the batting order and provide unmatchable safety behind the stumps.
The only team that had Sunrisers' number throughout the competition was the team they are going to meet in the finals, Chennai Super Kings. The two have met thrice this year, and on all three occasions Chennai have come out on top. If it is any consolation, Hyderabad have run Chennai close, but somehow MS Dhoni's team always managed to find Hyderabad's kryptonite just at the right time.
With that psychological edge of having an unbeaten record against Hyderabad and the big match experience in Dhoni's team, Chennai start Sunday's final as clear favourites. But as this tournament has shown before, the teams in this competition are evenly matched, and on its day, any team can defeat any other team.
Hyderabad will be buoyed by Rashid Khan's incredible allround performance at Kolkata and will hope to rally around their superstar for the big final. Rashid Khan has already shown his liking for the big stage in his short career. The IPL final will be the biggest stage he has been on yet. His last two outings at the Wankhede were nothing short of sensational. If he can pull something out of the box to dazzle the experienced Chennai line up, it will take Williamson one step closer to the coveted IPL trophy.