Feature

Four games that defined the IPL's top four

Whether through luck or tactical ingenuity, Titans, LSG, RR and RCB have all had to overcome adversity to reach the playoffs

Rashid Khan and Gujarat Titans pulled off a heist against Chennai Super Kings in Pune  •  BCCI

Rashid Khan and Gujarat Titans pulled off a heist against Chennai Super Kings in Pune  •  BCCI

The four teams in the playoffs of IPL 2022 have taken entirely different routes to get there, maximising their respective strengths and finding ways to work around their weaknesses. Here are four matches that encapsulated each team's journey, seasons in miniature.
Before the season began, you probably wouldn't have tipped Gujarat Titans to qualify for the playoffs, let alone get there as table-toppers. That they've achieved this despite having obvious holes in their batting has largely been down to three things: their strength as a bowling unit, the match-winners in their lower middle order, and luck going their way in a number of close games.
There's been no shortage of dramatic games in their journey to this point, but their comeback win over Chennai Super Kings defined their season. It began with the bowlers. Super Kings were 124 for 2 after the 14th over, but Alzarri Joseph, Mohammed Shami, Yash Dayal and Rashid Khan conceded just 27 off the next five overs. It left Titans chasing 170 rather than, say, 190.
Even so, Titans were still vulnerable because Hardik Pandya was out injured, compromising their depth to the extent that Rashid was slotted at No. 7. At 87 for 5 in the 13th over, that lack of depth was going to be severely tested, even with David Miller batting brilliantly.
You know what happened next. The 18th over began with Titans needing 48 off 18 - ESPNcricinfo's Forecaster gave them a 4.2% chance of victory - before Rashid whipped Chris Jordan for 6, 6, 4, 6 to transform the match. Cometh the hour, cometh another unlikely hero.
Even before a ball was bowled this season, Rajasthan Royals' strengths and weaknesses were clear. Their top five and their bowling attack were among the best in the league on paper, but it wasn't clear how they would bridge the gap between those two ends of their line-up.
They unveiled the solution to that issue in their fourth match of the season, against Lucknow Super Giants. Reduced to 67 for 4 in the tenth over of their innings, Royals promoted R Ashwin to No. 6, giving viewers their first glimpse of their intention to maximise his batting ability. They would use him in other roles in future games - most often as a pinch-hitter at No. 3 - but now they were sending him in to see out the remainder of the middle overs in Shimron Hetmyer's company, with Riyan Parag held back for later.
Ashwin performed his role perfectly, but just when he threatened to overstay his welcome, his innings stretching into the 19th over, he ran off the field and became the first batter to tactically retire out in the IPL. With Hetmyer rushing to an unbeaten 59 off 36, Royals set Super Giants a target of 166.
Royals' bowlers then did their bit to seal an enthralling victory. Trent Boult picked up two wickets in his first over, Ashwin bowled four boundary-free overs, and Yuzvendra Chahal - whose last two overs were held back for the 16th and 18th of Super Giants' chase - made the decisive intervention with figures of 4 for 41.
The flexibility afforded by a plethora of allrounders was tipped to be Super Giants' trump card. As things have turned out, that flexibility has been a bit of a mixed blessing so far, at least with the bat, leaving Super Giants with an unsettled middle order.
With the ball, though, the flexibility has allowed KL Rahul to use and hide bowlers as and when needed. This was particularly in evidence in a successful defence of 195 against Delhi Capitals at the Wankhede Stadium.
With Mohsin Khan and Dushmantha Chameera dismissing the Capitals openers early, Rahul gambled by bringing Krunal Pandya on for the fourth over despite Rishabh Pant being at the crease. He may have hoped that Pant would treat the left-arm spinner with more respect than normal given the match situation, or for Pant to go after Krunal and lose his wicket in the process. The move backfired, however, with Pant hitting three fours and a six in a 19-run over. Capitals took 34 off the next two overs and ended the powerplay at 66 for 2.
But Super Giants' wealth of bowling options eventually helped them claw their way back. It allowed them to hide their fingerspinners, who weren't having the greatest of days; Krunal bowled just that one over, and Krishnappa Gowtham - who was taken apart by Rovman Powell in the 12th over - only two. Then, with Capitals needing 50 off the last four, Super Giants were able to use up their main fast bowlers' last three overs in the 17th, 18th and 19th, since they had Marcus Stoinis in reserve. It came down to 13 needed off four balls, and Stoinis did his job, stringing together three crucial, back-to-back dots by denying Axar Patel elevation.
Royal Challengers Bangalore have been IPL 2022's worst powerplay team. With the ball, they've been both the most expensive (economy rate of 8.05) and least penetrative (average of 45.13) team in this phase. With the bat, they have the lowest run rate (6.40) and the third-worst average (25.61). But they've found ways to make up for this, just about often enough to sneak into the playoffs.
Perhaps the best example of Royal Challengers overcoming their powerplay weaknesses was their victory over Capitals, who were eventually their closest rivals for fourth place.
Sent in, Royal Challengers lost both openers in a 40-run powerplay, and Virat Kohli two balls later, before crucial knocks from Glenn Maxwell (55 off 34 balls), Shahbaz Ahmed (32* off 21) and Dinesh Karthik (66* off 34) helped them recover and set a challenging target of 190.
David Warner put Capitals on track, propelling them to a powerplay score of 57 for 1. But Harshal Patel, Wanindu Hasaranga, Maxwell and Shahbaz combined to give away just one boundary in the next four overs, and Capitals' required rate climbed to 11.10 at the halfway mark.
Forced into taking chances, Warner hit Harshal for two boundaries in the 11th over but fell while attempting to switch-hit Hasaranga in the 12th. It began a collapse that saw Capitals lose four wickets for 21 runs in the space of 22 balls, and Royal Challengers were now in control, with 75 required off the last 30 balls. Late hitting from Capitals' lower order spoiled the figures of Harshal and Hasaranga, but the result was never in doubt.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo