Can Chennai halt Rajasthan's juggernaut?
And so it is that the Indian Premier League's finale will feature the team that started off like an express train, and another that has enjoyed the smoothest ride through the six weeks. The wheels threatened to come off for the Chennai Super Kings after that 4-0 start, but they regrouped from the loss of their Australian contingent to stitch together the victories that have taken Mahendra Singh Dhoni to the threshold of another major Twenty20 triumph. The Rajasthan Royals were hammered in their opening game, but have since scripted the sort of fairytale that Eric the Eel and other underdogs could only dream about. Both demolished their semi-final opponents, and there will be no shortage of confidence on either side as two of the most intuitive leaders in the game face off for the sport's richest prize.
After thumping the Delhi Daredevils to take their deserved place in the final, Shane Warne had appeared quite indifferent when he was asked which team he would prefer to face. There was little doubt though that he expected it to be Kings XI Punjab. After all, of all the teams in the IPL, they had been most adept at absorbing pressure. The chase against Delhi in a game decided by Duckworth/Lewis had been timed to perfection, and they had also enjoyed a thrilling last-ball win against the Mumbai Indians.
But with Chennai reprising their early-season form, there was nothing majestic about the men from Punjab. With the stakes higher than ever, they took the pressure as well as a Coke can would a hobnailed boot. The established internationals like Yuvraj Singh and Mahela Jayawardene were the main culprits, and Dhoni could afford to stick to the tried-and-tested script after initially springing a surprise by throwing the new ball Muttiah Muralitharan's way.
It helped that his pace bowlers were absolutely outstanding. On a pitch that offered plenty of bounce, Makhaya Ntini was always going to be a factor, and so it proved. But it was Manpreet Gony, the son of Punjab in Chennai yellow, that took the vital wickets of Kumar Sangakkara and Yuvraj, bowling a maiden along the way. Throughout the tournament, his accuracy and consistency have been eye-catching, and in favourable conditions, he excelled by not getting carried away.
Gony and Ntini, supported splendidly by the ever-impressive Albie Morkel, will face their sternest test against a Rajasthan team that has already beaten them twice. Graeme Smith's muscular hitting may be missing, but in Kamran Akmal, Warne has a replacement who certainly doesn't lack flair or hitting ability. Shane Watson will be desperate to emphasise his most-valuable-player status in the game that matters most, while Swapnil Asnodkar and Niraj Patel will be encouraged to adapt the no-fear approach that has served them so well thus far.
The key to the contest will be Rajasthan's bowling, the most varied and effective in the competition. Sohail Tanvir has been the best new-ball bowler on view, while the heavy ball that Watson bowls was far too much for Delhi's star-studded batting to cope with. Siddharth Trivedi's changes of pace have been tough to get away, while Munaf Patel has eased back into the national reckoning with the accuracy that first caught the eye.
And then, there's Warne, the piper calling the tune. The rave reviews that his captaincy has earned have slightly obscured the fact that he also has 19 wickets for the tournament. On a helpful pitch, like the one he got in the semi-final, no one can rip a legbreak quite like he does. The straighter one has also fetched him wickets, as has the aura that appears to intimidate some batsmen even before they settle into the stance.
Both teams have got superb performances out of their Indian contingents. Suresh Raina, S Badrinath and the remodelled L Balaji have excelled for Chennai, while Warne has inspired top-drawer efforts from Ravindra Jadeja, Munaf, Trivedi and Asnodkar. Warne was insistent that it was the seven Indian players who were the real key to success. "You expect the four foreign guys to do a job," he said. "But it's the local players that can be the difference between winning and losing."
Dhoni, who has led India to victory at the World Twenty20 and in the CB Series, has had a charmed life as leader so far. But in Warne, he's up against perhaps the greatest big-match player there's ever been. It should be some contest.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo