Rajasthan Royals may have ended the league stage on top, but it will be the Kings XI Punjab who head into the semi-finals full of confidence after triumphing by 41 runs in a dead-rubber top-of-the-table clash in Mohali.
Shane Warne rested himself for the game, and there was not much the Rajasthan Royals' captain-cum-coach could do watching from the dugout as Punjab's top order knocked them out of the contest. Shaun Marsh led the way with a 69-ball 115 and James Hopes' 51 provided him support in a century stand before Yuvraj Singh finally found his rhythm with a blistering 49. Without Warne, Rajasthan looked insipid in the field, and a weakened attack without him and Sohail Tanvir, the tournament's best bowler, leaked away too many short and wide deliveries.
Rajasthan, despite a stumbling start, made a spirited effort at hunting down an imposing 222. There was a fluent fifty from Niraj Patel and two blistering hands from Yusuf Pathan and Kamran Akmal, but the match had pretty much been sealed after Punjab's batsmen provided a royal feast for the fans in their last home match.
Marsh, who has been the in-form batsmen for Punjab, was quick off the blocks. Shane Watson had taken over the captaincy, but Marsh started by spanking two wide deliveries off him for boundaries through the off side. The cut, pull and the lofted straight drive were seen aplenty as Marsh began his assault to go past Gautam Gambhir as the tournament's leading run-getter.
At the other end, Hopes got the occasional boundary while letting his partner take most of the strike, and he had to take some evasive action as Marsh blasted one off Watson that went right under his legs. The Powerplay overs fetched 51, but there was no respite for Rajasthan as Pankaj Singh was taken for 17 in the seventh: Marsh clobbering one over midwicket, before lacing the next through extra cover.
Marsh took a single off Dinesh Salunkhe's first ball to become the tournament's leading run-scorer, and a rank bad ball was blasted through midwicket to bring up his fifty. At 88 for 0 after ten overs, the Mohali crowd were set for a treat from their batsmen, and Hopes shifted gears as Punjab looked to build an imposing score. He got three boundaries off Siddharth Trivedi in the 11th over, and Yusuf's offspin was slog-swept into the stands en route to his fifty, which came 30 deliveries.
Next it was Marsh's turn; Yusuf was flat-batted over long-on for four before the Western Australian stepped down the track for to send one sailing over long-on. Yusuf got a breakthrough as Hopes holed on to deep midwicket and the two quiet overs that followed were the brief lull before Yuvraj came out storming and landed the knockout blow.
By then Marsh was marching towards his hundred, and he struck a six over Pankaj's head to move to 97, and a single later in the over - that cost 25 - brought up the sixth century of the IPL. The pressure was getting to Rajasthan, and Yuvraj cashed in: he swivelled around to pull one for six, before dispatching one through square leg.
Yuvraj was in the sort of mood that caught him when he smashed six sixes off Stuart Broad in the World Twenty20. He did hit five sixes off six consecutive deliveries - though it was spread across three overs this time - before he was run-out off the last ball of the innings, one short of what would have been the tournament's fastest fifty. Marsh had fallen earlier in the over, but Punjab were way past the par score of 180 initially suggested by Warne.
Rajasthan surprisingly opened with Mohammad Kaif and Niraj. Kaif fell early, as did Younis Khan, but Niraj, who held his calm during the gripping run-chase that knocked out the Mumbai Indians, scored a sparkling fifty.
He cracked four fours in a Sreesanth over: he worked the ball square on the off side as the bowler gave him width, and launched a slower ball down the ground. VRV Singh tried to test him with shorter deliveries, but Niraj managed to find the boundary. Punjab's bowlers had frittered away a winning position in their shock loss to the Kolkata Knight Riders, but today they were largely disciplined and were backed up by sharp fielding.
Though Niraj kept the score ticking, Rajasthan were struggling at 67 at the halfway mark. Piyush Chawla removed Niraj and Watson, but Rajasthan were given a glimmer of hopes as Yusuf Pathan and Kamran Akmal nonchalantly blasted sixes and scored 54 in three overs to bring it down to 90 off the final six.
Punjab had conceded 71 in the final five overs against Kolkata, but Chawla picked up his third wicket, removing Akmal, and even the hard-hitting Yusuf, who's been a revelation in the tournament, couldn't save Rajasthan. Warne had experimented with his line-up and Delhi Daredevils will be wary of a backlash come the semi-final in on Friday. As for the Chennai Super Kings, they will know they're up against a juggernaut.