In the Twenty20 format, teams can't afford to be predictable. Yesterday's innovation can be today's recipe for disaster. But ahead of Sunday's final, both teams are likely to spend a fair bit of time pondering the Chennai Super Kings' new-ball combination. Doug Bollinger and R Ashwin were tremendous in the semi-final, and have forged the most unlikely of alliances over the past five games. Chennai have won three of those, and the losses were more a result of shoddy batting than any slip-ups from the bowlers.
"We've done well, haven't we?" said Bollinger after the four-wicket haul that got him Man-on-the-Match honours and guaranteed that the most consistent team over the three years of competition would get a shot at Champions League Twenty20 glory. If they do go on to take the trophy, Chennai - who were 2-5 and sinking at one stage - should be grateful for the injuries to Andrew Flintoff and Jacob Oram that sent the scouts looking for a pace bowler of genuine quality.
In seven games, Bollinger has 11 wickets, and Thursday's game was the perfect opportunity to settle scores with the Deccan Chargers, who had taken 31 off three wicketless overs when the two teams met in Nagpur earlier this month. It was also a chance to get the Dharamsala game out of his system. There, for whatever reason, MS Dhoni broke up the pace-spin new-ball combo and made Bollinger bowl in tandem with Sudeep Tyagi, who had been hideously expensive all season. Tyagi was predictably slaughtered, Bollinger went for 39 in his four and it took some Dhoni heroics with the bat to salvage Chennai's campaign.
On Thursday, Tyagi was not to be seen, and nor were the other new-ball exponents who have hardly distinguished themselves. Ashwin, who had taken 2 for 13 against Deccan in an earlier game, was restored to new-ball duty and between them, he and Bollinger finished with 5 for 27.
On Sunday, the two might have to contend with Sachin Tendulkar, injured hand and all. In Chennai in early April, dehydration took him off the field and transformed Mumbai's run chase. Such oppressive weather won't be an ally in Mumbai, and the duo will have to think up ways to combat a batsman who has mastered the format despite not playing it internationally.
Chennai loaded the side with spinners for the semi-final, and on a sluggish pitch it paid off. Given their depressingly mediocre pace resources, a similar strategy could be employed for the final. Despite the concern over the decline in Matthew Hayden's output, the lack of impact from Michael Hussey and Justin Kemp should mean that he keeps his place.
As for Deccan, after their five-game winning run, this was a depressing way to surrender the title. They will look back on two ordinary overs from RP Singh and Ryan Harris that took the score from 116 to 142, and also to the extremely timid start to their own innings.
T Suman and Rohit Sharma, who had been such impressive foils for Andrew Symonds in the middle order, both failed and Adam Gilchrist's failure to reprise his remarkable semi-final innings of a year ago was crucial as well. Given how little he contributed with the bat over the final month, it was quite an achievement to even make the final four.
Dhoni and Chennai can dream of bigger things than third place, and it says much about the competitive nature of the league that a team that finished with a 50% record is now contesting the final against the runaway leaders. On paper, Mumbai should walk it, but if the pitch is slow, Chennai's spin phalanx and Bollinger could well silence a raucous home crowd.
Chennai Super Kings
Super Kings vs Chargers
Indian Premier League