Indian Premier League debutants Gujarat Titans will take on a Shane Warne-inspired Rajasthan Royals in Sunday’s final, both teams eyeing a fairy tale victory after each enjoyed a dominant season run.
Fourteen years ago, Warne led underdogs Rajasthan to glory in the marquee T20 tournament’s inaugural season.
This year they face another set of first-timers in the final of a season that began just weeks after the Australian spin legend’s shock death.
“Shane Warne… is such an influential figure for the Rajasthan Royals and having led the team to success in that first season,” said star batsman Jos Buttler.
“We will miss him dearly, but we know he is looking down on us with a lot of pride.”
In-form Buttler led Rajasthan’s fightback in the second qualifier to knock out Royal Challengers Bangalore and reach their first IPL final after they won the inaugural edition in 2008.
He equalled Virat Kohli’s record of four tons in an IPL season with 106 not out during Rajasthan’s chase, and leads the season’s batting chart with 824 runs.
Gujarat skipper Hardik Pandya has established his side as the team to beat this year after topping the league table and storming into the final when they beat Rajasthan by seven wickets in the first play-off.
“It’s really going to be a tough challenge,” Rajasthan head coach Kumar Sangakkara said of the looming showdown.
“(Pandya) is an exceptional player. He has led his side really well,” the former Sri Lanka captain told reporters.
“They are an exceptional team, highly skilled, really well settled, performing at peak consistently through this entire tournament.”
Gujarat will be playing at their home ground at the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad.
The franchise, owned by venture fund CVC capital, have been a force to reckon with since their opening win over fellow newcomers Lucknow Super Giants and they were the first to book a play-off spot.
South Africa’s David Miller and Indian batsman Rahul Tewatia have been key to their success with the middle-order pair rescuing Gujarat out of tough spots.
“Killer” Miller, as the left-handed hard hitter is known, made an unbeaten 68 to power Gujarat into the final early this week with a seven-wicket win in Kolkata.
Tewatia made two sixes in the last two balls to snatch a one-run victory over Punjab Kings last month.
Mohammed Shami has meanwhile led the team’s dominating bowling charge with 19 wickets in 15 matches, ably assisted by Afghan spinner Rashid Khan.
Rashid not only claimed 18 wickets but also boosted the team’s batting at crucial moments, including two sixes on the final two balls to pull off a sensational chase in the league stage, mirroring Tewatia’s feat.
“The more important thing was the balance that we had in the team really helped us to reach this position,” said the champion leg-spinner.
Everyone on the team had been certain of what role they were to play, he added. “There was no confusion in the players’ mind.”