How will the Punjab fairytale end?
Saturday, May 21, Dharamsala
Start time 1600 (1030 GMT)
The task ahead of Kings XI Punjab is simple: beat Deccan Chargers by as big a margin as possible on Saturday. Mumbai Indians' sorry show against Rajasthan Royals has brightened Punjab's prospects, and provided them with windows of opportunity at both ends of the Net Run-Rate curve. Punjab are already ahead of Mumbai on NRR, and if they win by a big enough margin, they will leapfrog Kolkata as well, reducing the final league game into a shoot-out. If, on the other hand, Punjab win by a small margin, they will remain behind Kolkata on NRR, and will want Mumbai to either lose, or win by a margin huge enough to pull Kolkata to fifth on the table. All these permutations, however, will count for nought if Punjab lose against Deccan.
The possibilities are endless, and the situation calls for cool heads that can ignore the distractions and approach the game with uncluttered minds. In captain Adam Gilchrist and coach Michael Bevan, Punjab have just the men for the job. So far, Punjab's campaign has hurtled along like a chronic insomniac over-dosing on sleeping pills: with arguably the weakest side on paper in the competition, they have been through a three-match winning streak and a five-game losing run, followed by four successive wins. Can they hold it together for one last game?
The dark cloud in Punjab's horizon is that, if they can't pull off a big win tomorrow, Kolkata and Mumbai will know exactly what they need to do when they play their last game. The darker cloud - literally - is that a rain-out in Kolkata will knock out Punjab irrespective of Saturday's outcome. The silver lining is that the normally meek Deccan are further weakened by the absence of Kumar Sangakkara, and have little to play for at the end of a forgettable season. The hills in Dharamsala could witness an interesting duel tomorrow.
Form guide (most recent first)
Deccan Chargers: WWLLL (eighth in points table)
Kings XI Punjab: WWWWL (fifth in points table)
Both teams are on winning streaks, and are unlikely to fiddle with their combinations. Sangakkara's absence might force Deccan to fall back on the hopelessly out-of-form Cameron White. Chris Lynn and Michael Lumb are the other likely replacements.
The more interesting variable in the lead-up to the game could be the nature of the strip at Dharamsala. The ball swung around in windy conditions in the Bangalore game, and there might be assistance from the track on Saturday. Preparing a seamer-friendly wicket can however be a dangerous move, against an attack that includes Dale Steyn and Ishant Sharma.
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In the spotlight
Talk of Punjab's campaign, and only the spurts of brilliance stand out - from Paul Valthaty, Adam Gilchrist and Piyush Chawla. Few will remember a single innings of note from Shaun Marsh, yet he has been the only constant in their topsy-turvy campaign. He scores a half-century once in nearly every two IPL outings, and is the only batsman who averages more than 50 across four seasons. That's staggering for anyone, but especially for a middle-order batsman, who has often batted in the shadow of Gilchrist, Yuvraj Singh, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
IPL 2011 has been a microcosm of Ishant Sharma's international career. He's managed to hit speeds of 150+kph, got the ball to kick and spit at the batsmen's throats from a length, and he's bowled the spell of the season. Amid those crests, he has also slipped in listless lengths, and has taken his share of tap. Which version of Ishant will turn up for the last game?
- Punjab are the specialists at ending streaks for their opponents. They ended seven-match streaks for Pune and Bangalore. The former was a losing streak, the latter was a winning streak and both are IPL records.
- Gilchrist's smash-a-thon against Bangalore has reaffirmed his spot at the top of the IPL six-hitters chart. He now has 80, seven ahead of Yusuf Pathan, and nine clear of Suresh Raina
"Ok so Dharamsala is beautiful, but if the pitch plays anything like the nets did today, there could be a fatality!"
Dale Steyn's Tweet after his first net session, on what might have been an under-prepared strip, is actually a veiled warning
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.