With four wins in their last four matches, the Sunrisers Hyderabad have become the second-most dominant team this IPL after the Mumbai Indians, who were the first to not just make the playoffs, but also the final
David Warner's team now has to clear one more hurdle, against the Delhi Capitals on Sunday in Qualifier 2, to make their second final since 2016, which was when they won the title. The Capitals are the only team to have never made the final. Last year, Shreyas Iyer's team lost to the Chennai Super Kings at the same stage, Qualifier 2, to crash out.
What will be the changes, in team selections, in strategies, from the two sides in this crunch clash?
The Capitals' ideal XI - Plan A
Drop the out-of-form Prithvi Shaw, open with Marcus Stoinis. Drop Daniel Sams, bulk up the middle order with Shimron Hetmyer. Opening with Stoinis and Shikhar Dhawan could allow the Capitals to get off to a quick start, something that has been missing for them after the first half of the league phase.
Stoinis was the Capitals' best batsman in their humbling defeat against the Mumbai Indians in Qualifier 1. He is a proven opening option in T20 cricket, having done it successfully in the Big Bash League since 2018, where he has struck ten half-centuries and a century with an average of 52 and a strike rate of 133.
By accommodating Hetmyer, ideally at No. 4 or No. 5, the Capitals can give a bit of freedom to Rishabh Pant, asking him to play his game and perform the finisher's role. Also, bring back Harshal Patel for Shaw, who can be a handful if the Abu Dhabi pitch continues to play slow and low as in the Eliminator.
The Capitals' ideal XI - Plan B
Open with Stoinis, replace Shaw with Harshal Patel, hand legspinner Sandeep Lamichhane his first match of the competition as replacement for Sams. It might be a left-field as suggestions go, but might not be, if you consider that Yuzvendra Chahal and Adam Zampa were the best bowlers, along with Rashid Khan, in the Eliminator between the Sunrisers and the Royal Challengers Bangalore on Friday evening on a slow pitch in Abu Dhabi.
The Capitals have sorely missed Amit Mishra, who was forced to return home after breaking his finger in the early half of the tournament. While R Ashwin will remain the key spinner, Lamichhane can operate in the middle overs along with Patel, allowing the fast-bowling pair of Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada to bowl enough overs at the death. It will be a brave call, but the Capitals have to think out of the box.
Don't let Rashid Khan settle down
The Capitals batsmen go quiet when Khan is in front of them, like a bunch of students when the headmaster walks into class. In five matches in IPL 2019 and 2020, the Capitals have scored just 76 runs from 120 deliveries against him. In this period, Khan has taken ten wickets at an economy rate of 3.8. Six of those wickets came this year, in threes, including the 3 for 7, one of the best spells of the tournament so far.
Khan will bowl in the middle overs, so it will be the responsibility of Dhawan, Iyer, and Ajinkya Rahane, most likely, to find ways to attack him. It is one of the toughest one-on-one battles in T20 cricket, but it might not hurt the Capitals to get up to a little mischief against Khan.
Stir it up for David Warner
In case Wriddhiman Saha does not play, again, Warner will take the lead in making the bold opening statement in the powerplay, as the Sunrisers have in their four successive wins in the last two weeks.
Warner will want to attack Rabada and Ashwin in the first six overs. Now, Rabada has got Warner out twice in the IPL, but has conceded 57 runs from 34 deliveries in the process. Ashwin has got Warner out thrice in the IPL, giving away 92 runs from 82 deliveries. Both of them will aim to cramp Warner for any room and prise him out.
That said, if the surface remains slow, then the Sunrisers batsmen will play percentage cricket, thereby making it a more even contest.
The Capitals' openers must stay the course
Dhawan and Shaw were among the best opening pairs at the beginning of the tournament, scoring 226 runs, including three 50-plus partnerships, in the first five matches. Shaw has fallen off miserably after that, while in the Capitals' last five matches, Dhawan has scored three ducks. In those, the Capitals have lost at least one wicket before getting to double-digits. Since October 20, which is when their slide started, the Capitals have lost eight wickets in the first two overs of a match, the poorest among all teams.
Bring Axar Patel on to attack Manish Pandey
Pandey has shown a lot of positive intent in key moments for the Sunrisers this IPL. Luckily, in Patel, the Capitals have the right bowler to challenge Pandey. In the 61 deliveries he has faced from Patel in T20s over the years, Pandey has been conservative, picking only 38 runs at a strike rate of 64, while losing his wicket twice.
Back to the start - what about the toss?
Keep chasing? It is a bigger question for the Capitals. In the two matches in the league phase, which the Sunrisers won, Iyer had elected to chase and that backfired on both occasions. Warner has won three tosses in a row now, and elected to field first. It is not just going by the trend at the venue, which tilts in favour of batting second, but the Sunrisers have been the best bowling unit in their last six matches - since October 20. Warner would want to chase again if he calls the coin right on Sunday, keeping in mind a low-on-confidence opposition and his strong bowling unit.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo