After 44 days of gruelling fight, the IPL league stage has given us the four teams that stay alive and progress to the next round. In what would go down as one of the closest and most open IPL league stages in history, Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings, and Delhi Capitals are going into the playoff with 18 points each. Sunrisers Hyderabad are the lucky losers over Kings XI Punjab and Kolkata Knight Riders, all tied at 12 points each. At the bottom of the table, and not far behind are Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore with 11 points each.
The calculators came out as the net run rate broke the tie between teams. So close was the finish that we didn't have a single dead rubber right till the last game. Every game had a context. The outcome of every game had something to contribute towards the shape of the playoffs. Even on the last day, two of the best teams this season, Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings weren't allowed to take it easy as the outcome of their final games would have a bearing on who finishes among the top-two on the points table and avoid the eliminator in the next game.
The table toppers Mumbai Indians are the most versatile in the contest and given their upper hand over Chennai Super Kings this season, they will be the favourites to be the first team in the final this year after Qualifier 1. CSK will have the advantage of playing at home though and may turn the tables on the side that proved to be their kryptonite this season.
What stood out for Mumbai was their ability to win games while chasing or batting first on different kinds of pitches. The season favoured teams batting second, as pitches often flattened out during the second innings. Teams also struggled to defend targets with big hitting lower order batsmen blowing away the bowlers. Overall, 32 games were won by teams batting second and 20 games were won by the teams batting first. Mumbai Indians proved to be the exception to this rule as six out of their nine wins came while batting first.
CSK were always more comfortable chasing. With a resurgent MS Dhoni averaging 122 this season, they backed themselves to chase any total from any position. Dhoni relied on his usual method of taking the games deep in a chase and letting the opposition bowlers make mistakes rather than making his own. Mumbai Indians followed a similar approach while defending totals and reaffirmed themselves as the best defensive bowling unit in the tournament. They relied on building consistent dot-ball pressure and waited for batsmen to make the mistakes.
Delhi Capitals was probably the most heartwarming story of the season. Led by a young captain in Shreyas Iyer and guided by legends like Ponting and Ganguly, the Delhi lads backed themselves to play an attacking brand of cricket. The team got the mix of youth and experience right this year with Team India veterans and local boys Shikhar Dhawan and Ishant Sharma along with evergreen Amit Mishra making substantial contributions throughout the season.
Shreyas Iyer provided solidity in the middle order, and Rishabh Pant provided fireworks at the end. With the ball, Rabada provided the X-factor in crunch moments. His super over against Andre Russell will go down in IPL history as one of the best efforts ever by a fast bowler. DC's resurgence after two forgettable seasons at IPL should be the prototype other not-so-successful teams should follow. They had invested in building a strong core around young and experienced Indian players in the last seasons which finally paid dividends in 2019.
The last qualifiers should be called Warner-Bairstow. The duo carried the burden of a misfiring middle order on their shoulders for an entire season. Midway through, Manish Pandey also found his mojo and is finally looking worthy of the big bucks the team spent on him during the auction couple of years ago. The bowling for Hyderabad used to be their strong fort, but this season it came undone as batsman got used to their variations. The pitches were also slow this season and favoured bowlers who could hit the surface hard to extract variable bounce. The third fast bowler went for runs almost every game and will be a headache for the Sunrisers even during the playoffs.
On paper, Kolkata Knight Riders are a more balanced team than Sunrisers, especially with Warner and Bairstow out. They should be asking themselves some serious questions in that dressing room over finishing outside the top four. Andre Russell's superhuman efforts gave them the unlikeliest of wins this season. The team management was guilty of under utilisation of resources. Shubman Gill should have been their default opener from day one with Narine doing the occasional pinch-hitting. Russell should have batted higher without having to express his desires in the press conference.
Kings XI Punjab did well for themselves with the limited resources they had especially at the start of the season but were eventually found out as other team found their feet. They also took time to figure out the best resources to do the job for them as Nicholas Pooran spent most of the season on the bench while David Miller continued getting games despite his poor form. Had Pooran played ahead of Miller earlier, some of those close games could have gone their way and the season would have turned out differently?
Rajasthan Royals would go into the next season wiser for the experience of playing without star players and still performing reasonably well towards the end of the season. They need to come out of their big-name infatuation and focus on building a team that plays together as a unit and not as individuals. Riyan Parag was the find of the season for them, and he should be nurtured to produce the goods for many seasons to come.
Royal Challengers Bangalore have been trying to answer the same questions for three seasons without any success. After finishing runner up in 2016, they were ranked 8th in 2017, 6th in 2018, and 8th again in 2019. They need to go back to the drawing board big time and figure out the way forward.
The RCB team has always been batting heavy, but it was the injection of Dale Steyn that turned their fortunes towards the end of the seasons and helped them win some games. Hetmyer is one of the best T20 batsmen going around, and he should have played all the game for the team with the license to play freely right from the start, something he did only in the last game. RCB also needs to find and back more domestic performers as they did with Navdeep Saini this year. Or maybe they could just change their team name like Delhi did, and hope it will change their fortunes!