x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Gilchrist is Deccan's X-factor

Dileep Premachandran is not ruling out the sport's ultimate big-match player to come good in today's semi-final against Chennai.

Adam Gilchrist has made a habit of scoring at the business end of a tournament.
Adam Gilchrist has made a habit of scoring at the business end of a tournament.

On Saturday, I was inside the Chinnaswamy Stadium, where a game was scandalously allowed to go ahead despite the presence of unexploded bombs outside. The sports pages in recent days have had more about tax evasion, alleged match-fixing, "shell" companies and proxy owners than they have about the cricket itself.

It is a shame, because the veneer of sleaze obscured what has been an excellent season of IPL cricket. With a few exceptions, the big boys came out to play. Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis and Sourav Ganguly topped the run charts, proving that annual rings are no impediment to class, while Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Lasith Malinga and Kieron Pollard all took more than 10 wickets as Mumbai Indians clinched first place with games to spare.

Six of the eight teams finished with at least seven wins from their 14 matches. Even Kings XI Punjab, who finished well adrift at the bottom, could point to victories over the Indians and Chennai Super Kings, two of the semi-finalists. While other sporting leagues fight losing battles to bridge the divide between top and bottom, the IPL did not know who would make up the last four until the penultimate day of the league.

That level playing field has made for dramatic reversals of fortune, and no two teams exemplify that better than the Super Kings and Deccan Chargers, who contest the second semi-final tonight. The Super Kings started with two wins from three games, but with MS Dhoni missing after being hit on the arm by Shane Bond, they lost four on the trot. Matthew Hayden's bat stopped booming, Muttiah Muralitharan started getting hammered and the anxiety levels mounted.

But as weak as their bowling was, Chennai could still call on one of the best batting line-ups in the competition. Murali Vijay scored breezily without resorting to slogs and Suresh Raina became the only player to top 400 runs in each season of the IPL. Dhoni saved his best for last, thumping 54 from 29 balls as a semi-final place was clinched with just two balls to spare. Having won five of their last seven games, Chennai have little reason to fear anyone. But in the Chargers, they face a side that has enjoyed an even more purple patch.

With Adam Gilchrist stroking the ball well, they showed the form of champions in winning three of their first four games. Then, with the batting imploding and Kemar Roach's pace blunted by the pitches, they lost five in a row. Thereafter, the equation was simple. Each game was a must-win, and despite blips with the bat, the Chargers showed resilience to make their way to second spot. Even as Gilchrist's form fell away, Tirumalasetti Suman stepped up to lessen the burden on Andrew Symonds and Rohit Sharma. They rotated the pace of Ryan Harris with the nous of Chaminda Vaas, while Pragyan Ojha moved clear at the top of the wicket-taking chart.

Gilchrist and the coaching staff coaxed a couple more special performances out of Harmeet Singh. His wonderful final over to Robin Uthappa was instrumental in the Chargers' resurgence and Chennai's batsmen will have to be wary against the slower ball that he bowls with excellent control. The old firm of Gilchrist and Hayden have been short of runs in recent weeks, but you sense that a breakout innings from either man could settle this tie.

The Chargers were rank outsiders in the semi-final against Delhi Daredevils last year, but Gilchrist came out and smashed 85 from 35 balls to make light of a tricky chase. Given his reputation as the ultimate big-match player - a ton and two 50s in three World Cup finals - do not rule out an encore. Chennai have the batting to match any total, but their bowling is the big worry. Against a Chargers side that Darren Lehmann, the coach, has transformed after the horrors of 2008 (12 defeats), Chennai's so-near-and-yet-so-far story might just find another unhappy chapter.

sports@thenational.ae Chennai Super Kings v Deccan Chargers, 6.30pm on CricOne

Hayden v Vaas Hayden, the veteran opener, has had many an exchange with Vaas, the seasoned seamer. Where the left-hander can be destructive, the left-armer can be miserly. Muralitharan v Symonds Deccan's run-rate in the middle overs is likely to be defined by how the aggressive Symonds deals with the wily off-spinner. A fascinating duel is on the cards. Dhoni v Gilchrist Both wicketkeepers, one's leading by example, the other is by inspiration. One's peaking in his career, the other is past his prime. Their roles will be key.