There is an inevitability about Andre Russell
when it comes to chasing down totals.
Samp Army brought a lot of energy and vibrance to the Abu Dhabi T10, but it was that man, Dre Russ, who turned up late on Saturday evening to shatter the hopes of Moeen Ali
's side and set up a blockbuster Sunday showdown
against New York Strikers in the final.
Russell was out for a duck in his first game on Saturday for Deccan Gladiators, but the man is a big-game player. So, after Moeen's blistering 78* off 29 deliveries helped Samp Army set a target of 120, Mushtaq Ahmed
had no choice but to open the batting with Russell, regardless of his tournament tally of 21 runs in six innings at an average of 4.2.
And what an inspired decision it was. A decision that has given Gladiators a chance to defend their title. They did it the hard way, winning two games in one night and, despite coming fourth in the league standings, they will enter the final bursting with confidence. They have been here before and they know what it takes.
It took the Gladiators until the last game of the Abu Dhabi T10 league phase last season to recognise that the nature of the ten-over format means leaving Russell in the middle order could mean wasting their most valuable resource. But coach Mushtaq and captain Nicholas Pooran
ensured they used Russell right on Saturday. He opened for the first time this season and smashed 63 off 32 deliveries before Pooran's unbeaten 38 off 12 took the Gladiators home in the final over.
"You have to send your best player, with the X-Factor," Mushtaq said. "Last year, we sent him to open in the final and you saw what he did [Russell hit 90* in 32 balls
]. I spoke to him today and told him he had to bat higher. Sometimes you have to make big decisions in T10 and T20 cricket."
Going into Saturday, the average first-innings score this season was 114, but a full house at Zayed Cricket Stadium were treated to a couple of low-scoring thrillers to begin with.
In the first qualifier
, Samp Army's 81 for 9 was a feeble effort, where the tone was set from the start with Johnson Charles and Karim Janat bowled by Akeal Hosein
in the first over. But Strikers were made to sweat for their place in Sunday's final. Maheesh Theekshana
picked up the wickets of Paul Stirling, Azam Khan and Jordan Thompson, while Janat bowled Eoin Morgan. But, in between, Muhammad Waseem
held firm and played a match-winning knock. His unbeaten 36 off 16 allowed them to reach their target with four wickets remaining and nine balls to spare.
For the new franchise from across the Atlantic, under Carl Crowe as head coach and Kieron Pollard as skipper, it has been a superb campaign with seven wins in succession after losing on opening night.
While Strikers enjoyed their evening off, Samp Army were made to wait to find out who they would be facing in the second Qualifier.
It was the eliminator
next. Team Abu Dhabi captain Chris Lynn won the toss and chose to field and, at the halfway mark, it looked like the correct decision with Gladiators finishing on 94 for 6. Bar Odean Smith
's 32 off 15 deliveries, no one else really got going in an innings that huffed and puffed its way through.
But Team Abu Dhabi were undone by an outstanding bowling display by the reigning champions. They struck regularly with Sultan Ahmed, Zahoor Khan, Josh Little and Tabraiz Shamsi all picking up two wickets apiece. Not one of the Abu Dhabi top five managed to clear the rope and the task was too much for the tail in the end. Little struck twice in successive deliveries and, with 30 required from two overs, a couple of big blows from Adil Rashid meant that they needed six off the final delivery.
The crowd backed Rashid to hit one more but Zahoor's yorker was too good and ensured that Gladiators got a shot at defending their title.
Aadam Patel is a freelance sports reporter who has written for BBC Sport, the Daily Mail, ESPNcricinfo, the Cricketer and other publications @aadamp9