A near-perfect performance
Two moments encapsulated the Rajasthan Royals' overwhelming superiority in this semi-final. Yusuf Pathan had already clubbed Glenn McGrath for a straight four off the first ball of the penultimate over and, when he decided to throttle back for the final delivery, Pathan's response was telling. Picking the slower ball early, he smeared it flat over midwicket with the sort of violence that used to leave George Foreman's opponents with autopsied faces.
Minutes later, when they came out in defence of 192, early wickets were imperative, especially with Delhi's top three having piled on the runs all tournament. But when Virender Sehwag top-edged a pull off Shane Watson, now a shoo-in for Player of the Tournament, there would have been a few palpitations in the Rajasthan camp. The man running to his left to try and take the chance was Sohail Tanvir, whose fielding efforts earlier in the tournament hadn't always been distinguished. But wearing the purple cap of the competition's leading wicket-taker, he pouched it almost nonchalantly, leaving Delhi with a climb up Everest's north face.
Rajasthan may have topped the table, but it was Delhi that boasted some of the biggest stars in the firmament. On a pitch that has always offered true bounce, the pace triumvirate of McGrath, Mohammad Asif and Farveez Maharoof were expected to be devastating. Instead, all the early damage was done by the smallest man on the field, Swapnil Asnodkar, who swatted his way to 39 without a care in the world. "He's about as tall as the stumps," said Shane Warne later about the man he calls the Goa Cannon, and the little man whacked it a long way as Asif struggled to find his rhythm.
That he even played was a surprise to some. Niraj Patel had been outstanding in his three outings, but when it came to the big match, Warne opted for his first-choice opening pair of Asnodkar and Graeme Smith. And it was Smith, movement impaired by a hamstring strain, who first gave evidence of the spirit that has propelled this remarkable side all the way to Sunday's final.
Reduced to stand-and-deliver mode, he first clouted McGrath over wide mid-on for two fours. The first ball had been short and the next fairly full, and McGrath then tried to summon a yorker. Smith leaned forward and punched it past mid-off. Suddenly, 15 off three overs had become 43 from five. Rajasthan never looked back.
But for a fired-up Maharoof, embarrassed no doubt by the catch he dropped off Asnodkar, Delhi might even have conceded 220. Amit Mishra was the other standout bowler, using his variations cleverly and watching with mounting frustration as miscues flew over the rope or into empty space. Rajasthan smashed 59 from the third set of five overs, with the half-century partnership between Watson and Mohammad Kaif taking just 26 balls. Kaif's contribution was a scampered 11, and there was the surreal sight of a predominantly local crowd chanting an Australian's name ["Watson, Watson"] in Indian cricket's heartland.
Watson's wonderfully clean hitting and Pathan's final flourish meant that Delhi were always chasing the game but, having opted to chase on winning the toss, Sehwag couldn't have foreseen the debacle that followed. Time and again in this tournament, Delhi's middle and lower-order weaknesses have been exposed and with the first three managing just 19 between them, Rajasthan's mix-and-match bowling attack never relinquished control. Asnodkar might be the wild-card pick of the tournament, but Siddharth Trivedi hasn't been far behind, with his clever changes of pace and accuracy. Their success, and that of the rehabilitated Munaf Patel, is the reason why many Rajasthan fans might tell you that Warne and his support staff could turn water into wine.
With Watson at his wannabe-Flintoff best, the contest was over by the end of the Powerplay. Not amused by his first-ball duck earlier, his namesake Warne ripped legbreaks a mile to take his IPL tally to 19. With the trusty Watson by his side, the Sherlock Holmes of IPL captains now stands poised on the threshold of the biggest prize. As for Delhi, who began the tournament so strongly, they must now reflect on The Case of the Missing Stars.