So, after 20 group-stage matches, an Eliminator and two Qualifiers, we've finally arrived at the culmination of this year's Lanka Premier League. And it's once again those two, Galle Gladiators and Jaffna Kings, vying for top spot, in a repeat of last year's final.
En route, Kings have pretty much trounced nearly every team they've played, while Gladiators have been less polished, but are crucially the only team to have beaten Kings - three times all up, including in the first Qualifier.
Suffice to say, there might be a slight psychological edge in Gladiators' favour going into this final, but if you're the Kings you got to be feeling that the law of averages is about to come down hard in your favour.
So, if there are any clues as to how this match might go, a brief analysis of their three encounters might help.
The first was game one itself, the tournament curtain raiser. On a fresh pitch, Gladiators utilised the best of the batting conditions to put up what was deemed at the time a par score of 164, before their spinners throttled the Kings batters.
Kings would proceed to overcome this early setback by their batters going on a tear; over their next few games, they would maul Kandy Warriors for 181 in 14 overs and then Colombo Stars for 207 in 18 overs in rain-truncated affairs. At other times, they simply bundled teams out for below par totals and hared to the finish. Gladiators in the meantime never quite reached the dominance they had in that first match, losing a couple of games, while even the wins were close-run affairs.
So, when the two sides met for a second time, in game 19, while both had qualified for the playoffs, there was only one team in the ascendency. And at the halfway stage of that game with Gladiators limping to 129 for 8, that statement still held true. However, Kings would quite preposterously stall in the chase; the batters that had laid waste in games past seemed to have lost all their bearings, as Kings fell short by 20 runs.
That game though had a caveat; while the top six were still their primary options, there was still a fair bit of rotation, with Wanindu Hasaranga in particular a big miss. The pitch too was unpleasant for the batters.
There were no such excuses for their last meeting, though, in the first Qualifier. With a place in the final on the line, and away from the spin-havens of Colombo, Gladiators' top order at long last clicked into place. Kusal Mendis to be fair had been doing the business throughout the tournament, but this time he was joined by Danushka Gunathilaka as the opening pair laid the platform for an imposing 188.
The bowlers, particularly the slingy Nuwan Thushara, then ran roughshod over the Kings batters, with only Rahmanullah Gurbaz showing any fight. And so, for the third time in as many matches against Gladiators, Kings' batters failed to turn up.
Yet, as we head into the final, it's hard to look back at these games as anything other than blips; Kings have been by far the most impressive side this LPL, in the field, and with bat and ball. They will rightly head in as favourites, but against Gladiators, a side that has shown they have the weapons to hurt them, they have been found conspicuously wanting time and again. As they say, something's gotta give.
(Most recent results first)
Jaffna Kings: WLLWW Galle Gladiators: WWWLL
In the spotlight
It would be easy to pinpoint the likes of Avishka Fernando, who just plundered the first century of the LPL, or Kusal Mendis who lies second in the run-scoring charts. However, the shift to Hambantota for the playoffs and final, where the pitches have so far been truer, it's safe to assume that both sides' batters will continue to have the best of proceedings. This game, therefore, is likely to be decided by the respective bowling units.
In Maheesh Theekshana and Jayden Seales, Kings have two bowlers who are among the top five wicket-takers in the tournament. Theekshana is tied at the top with 15, while Seales is one back on 14. Theekshana has been one of Kings' trump cards, frequently providing breakthroughs in the powerplay, while Seales' changes in pace have made him a difficult proposition for a lot of batters, especially on the sluggish Colombo pitches.
Seales didn't play in the first Qualifier but starred with 3 for 24 in the second. It's hard to see him missing out on the final. Theekshana, meanwhile, will have a vital role to play in curbing the likes of Mendis and Gunathilaka at the top of the innings.
As for Gladiators, their bowlers haven't really lit up the tournament per se, though as a collective they have managed to get by. But in Nuwan Thushara they have a genuine, if inconsistent, match-winner. He's picked up 11 wickets this tournament, but five came in their last game against the Kings. Yes, the comparisons to Lasith Malinga are inevitable, even if he's got quite a way to before reaching that exalted level, but still, a bowler with low slingy action, a good slower ball, and able to surprise even set batters, is invaluable in this format.
And then of course there's Mohammad Amir, the jewel, the spearhead, who has been made to toil for much of the tournament on surfaces completely unhelpful to his skill set. Yet he's picked up at least a wicket each game, while his economy rate of 7.29 has remained respectable. While the batters might have the better of it in Hambantota, it will also make Amir more of a threat.
Don't expect to see too much by way of change. Ashan Randika got himself a game last time, but it's likely the Kings will opt to bring back Ashen Bandara, due to his excellence in the field as much as his useful lower order hitting. There's also the fitness of Gurbaz that could be of concern, after he looked to have strained his hamstring in the last game. Upul Tharanga is in with a shout of replacing him.
The Gladiators will likely feel remiss to change a winning combination, so barring injuries expect the same team to take the field as last time out. Noor Ahmad will miss out though, after he was selected to join up with Afghanistan for the Under-19 Asia Cup.
Galle Gladiators (probable): 1 Kusal Mendis, 2 Danushka Gunathilaka, 3 Anwar Ali, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Bhanuka Rajapaksa(c), 6 Samit Patel, 7 Sahan Arachchige, 8 Isuru Udana, 9 Pulina Tharanga, 10 Nuwan Thushara, 11 Mohammad Amir
Pitch and conditions
We've only had three games in Hambantota so far, and each has held very few demons for the batters. There has been bounce for bowlers willing to hit the deck, with the odd ball moving off the seam, but for the most part the ball has come on to the bat.
"We won our last game, and everyone is in a good frame of mind. We are not putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. If we perform our roles, we can emerge victorious. Our shortcomings against Galle were that we failed to push the singles and twos, along with hitting the boundaries. We saw that happening in our last game (against Dambulla Giants) though. So what we discussed, we executed in the middle, and that's why we won." Kings captain Thisara Perera is confident they've ironed out the kinks that have seen them struggle against Gladiators in the past
"It's like playing a series against a normal national side, we played three games and won three out of three. The boys are pretty much confident. As we have beaten them thrice it's a matter of another game. We can't underestimate them because we know how good they are, and they are the reigning champions. The preparations have been good, and we are looking forward to playing another match." Despite their success against the Kings in the recent past, Gladiators captain Bhanuka Rajapaksa is not getting complacent