Ten days into IPL 2017, not many would have given Rising Pune Supergiant much of a chance of making it anywhere near the top of the table. After four games, not only had they lost three, but they had lost by handy margins - six wickets, 97 runs, and seven wickets, against Kings XI Punjab, Delhi Daredevils and Gujarat Lions; those weren't the strongest teams in the competition either. Fifteen matches into the tournament, Rising Pune were at the bottom of the points table with a net run rate of -1.537.
From there, their transformation has been remarkable. Six wins in seven games has taken them to right up to No. 3, and they have displaced Sunrisers Hyderabad from that spot, which makes the clash between these two teams even more highly anticipated.
The key to Rising Pune's resurgence has been their bowling attack, which has improved dramatically after a terrible start. On the other hand, Sunrisers' bowlers have lost their way somewhat after a fantastic first five games.
After four games, Rising Pune had taken only 19 wickets, averaging 38.15 runs per wicket, and 9.41 runs per over; since then, they have taken 50 wickets in seven matches - the most by any team in this period - while the average has dropped to 21.26, and the economy rate to 7.70. No other team has conceded less than eight per over in this period (from April 16).
Breaking it down further, the biggest difference has been in the Powerplay and the last five overs of the innings. In the Powerplays, the economy rate has come down from 10 an over to 7.40, thanks to Jaydev Unadkat (12 overs, 84 runs, ER 7), Washington Sundar (10 overs, 69 runs, ER 6.9) and Ben Stokes (6 overs, 32 runs, ER 5.33).
In the death overs, the difference has been even more dramatic. In the first four games, Rising Pune leaked 13 runs per over, the worst among all teams. In just four overs at the death, Ashok Dinda leaked 68, while Imran Tahir went for 50 in four. Ben Stokes started the tournament poorly, going for 45 in four overs at the death, while Adam Zampa went for 29 in two.
From those terrible numbers, Rising Pune have suddenly found the men for the job, and the results have been stunning. In the last 20 days of the tournament (from April 16), they have transformed from being the worst bowling team in the death overs, to being the best, in terms of wickets, average, and economy rate.
Jaydev Unadkat has been key to their improved wicket-taking ability, taking nine in the death overs at an average of 10.22 and an economy rate of 8.49. In terms of restricting the runs, Daniel Christian and Stokes have been outstanding, conceding less than 7.2 runs per over.
In fact, Unadkat is the second-highest wicket-taker in the death overs, next only to Bhuvneshwar Kumar who has 14. Saturday's clash will thus also be between the two leading slog-overs wicket-takers in this tournament. While Bhuvneshwar has always been among the best in the death overs, Unadkat's season so far has been a revelation.
On the other hand, Sunrisers' bowlers have just lost a bit of their bowling magic in the second half of the tournament. In the first five games, they took 39 wickets at an economy rate of 8.08, but in their next five games (excluding the washout versus Royal Challengers), they have managed only 29 at an economy rate of nearly 9 an over. The outstanding form of David Warner and the addition of Kane Williamson to their XI have obviously bolstered the batting and made their top five arguably the best in the tournament, but the bowling has fallen away just a bit.
Bhuvneshwar and Rashid Khan remain huge threats, but opposition teams have chalked out better strategies against them. In the first five games, the two bowlers collectively took 24 wickets at an average of 10.54, but in the last five they have managed only nine wickets collectively. Rashid has taken three in his last five games after taking six in the first five, while Bhuvneshwar's tally has dropped from 15 to six. Not giving away their wickets to them has allowed the opposition batsmen to attack other bowlers: Moises Henriques, for instance, has gone for 142 in 12.1 wicketless overs in Sunrisers' last five matches.
The batting has picked up the slack, though, ensuring that Sunrisers remain one of the hot favourites to make the playoffs this season.