Sunrisers Hyderabad have won each of their last three games, and four of their last five. Royal Challengers Bangalore have lost each of their last four. None of this will matter on Friday, when the two teams meet in Abu Dhabi. Momentum might be overrated, but the contrasting kinds of momentum these two teams have built up over their recent games will inform how they might go about this Eliminator.
The Sunrisers' bowling attack came together as a collective in the second half of the league phase, with Sandeep Sharma almost always taking wickets in the powerplay, Rashid Khan bossing the middle overs, and Jason Holder teaming up effectively with T Natarajan at the death. Their opening combination of David Warner and Wriddhiman Saha has clicked into gear ruthlessly, and Manish Pandey and Kane Williamson, on form, are as good a No. 3 and 4 as any in the competition. But the batting below that - as was the case in the early part of the tournament, and as has been the case right through the Sunrisers' recent history - remains suspect.
The Royal Challengers will want to get at that middle order early.
But the Royal Challengers have issues of their own to sort out. They'll want to win the toss and chase, because they've batted first in each of their four back-to-back losses leading into the Eliminator. If they're forced to bat first again, they'll want to sort out their approach. Their middle-overs (7-16) run rate of 7.14 is the worst of all eight teams this season and their collective scoring rate against spin across phases (7.17) is the second-worst of all teams behind the Chennai Super Kings' 7.08.
It's not that their batsmen have struggled in the traditional sense against spin. The three batsmen in their line-up who've faced the most spin - Virat Kohli, Devdutt Padikkal and AB de Villiers - average 110.00, 54.33 and 54.00 against that type of bowling this season. But their strike rates against spin this season are 108.91, 120.74 and 109.09 respectively.
Those numbers spell out the issue clearly. In one word (a word Kohli loves using): intent. The Royal Challengers will have to show more intent in the middle overs, and against spin, to give themselves a better chance of putting up an above-par total. They'll have to do it against an attack that includes Rashid Khan.
Or it could come down to the death overs and - if he's still at the crease - de Villiers. It isn't an ideal way to win matches, but the Royal Challengers probably wouldn't have got to the playoffs without a small collection of de Villiers' end-overs masterclasses. Perhaps he has one - or, who knows, more - left in his locker for the season.
In the news
Navdeep Saini split the webbing of his right hand while fielding off his own bowling against the Chennai Super Kings on October 25. He missed the Royal Challengers' next match against the Mumbai Indians, then came back and bowled two expensive overs against the Sunrisers, and missed out again in their last league game against the Delhi Capitals. It's not clear yet if he's recovered fully from the injury.
Chris Morris only managed two overs in the game against the Capitals before leaving the field with a hamstring injury. His fitness status is also unclear, but the four-day gap between that game and the Eliminator might have given both him and Saini the time they needed to recover from their respective injuries.
A debut half-century from Devdutt Padikkal and a 30-ball 51 from AB de Villiers hauled the Royal Challengers to 163 in the two sides' season-opener in Dubai. That total seemed inadequate when Jonny Bairstow's 61 moved the Sunrisers to a point where they needed 43 in 28 balls with eight wickets in hand. But a double-wicket over from Yuzvendra Chahal turned the game on its head, triggering a collapse that saw the Sunrisers lose their last eight wickets for 32 runs.
When the teams met again, in Sharjah, the Royal Challengers were a win away from sealing qualification, at the Sunrisers' expense. That win failed to materialise, as Sandeep Sharma's early breakthroughs, followed by a constricting performance by the rest of the bowlers, kept the Royal Challengers to 120. Wriddhiman Saha and Manish Pandey had the chase under control with a 50-run second-wicket stand, but Chahal, once again, triggered a bit of panic by dismissing both of them, and when Kane Williamson fell cheaply the Sunrisers were at an uncertain 87 for 4. Jason Holder, however, calmed their nerves and sealed victory with an unbeaten 26 off 10 balls.
Sunrisers Hyderabad 1 David Warner (capt), 2 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 3 Manish Pandey, 4 Kane Williamson, 5 Priyam Garg/Abhishek Sharma, 6 Jason Holder, 7 Abdul Samad, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Shahbaz Nadeem, 10 Sandeep Sharma, 11 T Natarajan.
Royal Challengers Bangalore: 1 Devdutt Padikkal, 2 Josh Philippe, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 AB de Villiers (wk), 5 Shivam Dube, 6 Chris Morris/Moeen Ali, 7 Washington Sundar, 8 Isuru Udana, 9 Shahbaz Ahmed/Navdeep Saini, 10 Mohammed Siraj, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal.
Virat Kohli has faced 259 balls in the middle overs (7-16), more than any other batsman in IPL 2020, but his strike rate (108.10) is the fourth-worst of all batsmen to have faced at least 100 balls in that phase. Given that the batsmen who have partnered Devdutt Padikkal at the top of the order haven't set the IPL alight so far, there's a case for Kohli to move himself up the order, start his innings in the powerplay, and make use of the field restrictions to pick up a few early boundaries.
This would also allow Moeen Ali, who boasts the best middle-overs strike rate (160.50) of all Royal Challengers batsmen since the 2018 season, to come into the side at the expense of Josh Philippe. Moeen has a decent record against Rashid Khan over a limited sample size (26 runs off 18 balls, one dismissal), but his overall T20 numbers against legspin and left-arm fingerspin (the two types of spinner in the Sunrisers' expected attack) are encouraging: 503 runs in 297 balls at a strike rate of 169.36 and a reasonable average of 23.95.
Playing Moeen could also allow the Royal Challengers to delay the entry of AB de Villiers, whose incredible death-overs strike rate of 230.86 this season is offset by a not hugely impressive middle-overs figure of 129.71. More pertinent to this game, the later de Villiers comes in, the less he will have to face of Rashid Khan and Shahbaz Nadeem. Since the 2018 season, de Villiers has modest numbers (by his standards) against legspin - a strike rate of 124.63, an average of 31.62 - and while he has averaged 55.00 against left-arm orthodox, his strike rate against that style of bowling is only 118.27.
The Sunrisers are masters at using fingerspinners tactically. They memorably played the left-arm spinner Bipul Sharma as a de Villiers specialist in the 2016 final, and while they have the left-arm spin of Nadeem in their usual attack, they could double up on that style of bowling and play Abhishek Sharma ahead of Priyam Garg in the middle order. Neither has made a consistent impact with the bat so far, but the potential for Abhishek to bowl an over or two, if needed, to a specific opponent, could make him a handy pick.
Manish Pandey has gone on an excellent run of form of late, and the Royal Challengers will see him as a key wicket. One way to combat him would be to bowl their spinners in tandem as soon as he comes to the crease. Yuzvendra Chahal has a terrific record against Pandey in the IPL: 48 balls, 41 runs, four dismissals, as does Washington Sundar: 18 balls, 15 runs, one dismissal.
Stats that matter
Since the 2011 season, when the IPL moved to its current playoffs system, it's been a historically difficult task for teams finishing third and fourth on the league table to win the tournament. Only one team that has featured in an Eliminator (the Sunrisers, who finished third in the league phase in 2016) has won the title that year, and only one other team featuring in an Eliminator (the Chennai Super Kings, who were fourth on the table in 2012) has even made an IPL final
Remember this game? And this one? AB de Villiers certainly will, as will Jason Holder, even though he won't want to. They've not met in the death overs of an IPL game this season, and who knows how that contest could go. Holder, though, has been excellent in the death this season, with an economy rate of 7.83 in that phase. Only Chris Morris (7.03) has done better among bowlers to have delivered at least 30 balls in this phase
Morris has done exceptionally at the other end of the innings too. Among bowlers who've sent down at least 60 balls in the powerplay, he has the sixth-best economy rate (6.26). Washington Sundar (5.75) is second-best, and T Natarajan (6.33) and Sandeep Sharma (6.47) are also in the top eight
Given a cut-off of 40 balls faced, Wriddhiman Saha (169.04) and Manish Pandey (158.62) are both in the top three for powerplay strike rates this season (Chris Gayle sits between them at 160.00)
Rashid Khan (18) and Yuzvendra Chahal (18) have the most middle-overs wickets of any bowler this season. At 5.16 and 6.30 respectively, they also have the best economy rates in the phase
Three more sixes will take Virat Kohli to 300 in T20s