Sunil Narine v R Ashwin
Narine's ability to spin the ball sharply both ways, allied by a high trajectory and smart changes of pace has made life tough for opposition batsmen who failed to read the ball out of his fingers. In two matches versus Chennai, Narine has taken three wickets at an average of 12.66 and economy rate of 4.75 and strike-rate of 16.00. In a tense five-wicket win in Chennai on April 30, his analysis of 1 for 24 was crucial to keeping the hosts to 139 and in the heart-breaking last-ball win at Eden Gardens on May 14 his spell of 2 for 14 put the skids on CSK's chase. In pursuit of 159, Michael Hussey and M Vijay had put on 97 in 10.1 overs before Narine dismissed them in the space of three balls.
In comparison to Narine, CSK's lead spinner Ashwin has also taken three wickets against Kolkata this season, at an average of 16 and strike-rate of 15.33. In the defeat he took 2 for 22 from 3.4 overs before the win was finished with a slog-sweep off his bowling with two balls in hand; in the win Ashwin took 1 for 26 from his quota which included the wicket of Yusuf Pathan as KKR stumbled after a strong start.
Both are attacking bowlers who rely on their versions of the carom ball, delivered with a flick of the finger. In a high-stake match such as the final, and on a surface known to assist spinners, the efforts of Narine and Ashwin promise to be massive.
Gautam Gambhir v MS Dhoni
Dhoni, who has led CSK to four IPL finals, two titles as well as a Champions League Twenty20 trophy, has been his usual self as leader of the team in IPL 5. He has not tinkered much with his playing XI, instead choosing to rely on the same bunch of core players that have done well for CSK over the years. The only major changes were drafting back Hussey once he returned from Australia duty for the South African opener Faf du Plessis, a move that resulted in Hussey scoring a crucial innings against Mumbai Indians.
Dhoni also chose to reunite Hussey with Vijay – the pair which had done so well in the past – and the result of backing a woefully out-of-form Vijay was a dazzling century against Delhi Daredevils to take CSK into their fourth final. Once Ben Hilfenhaus also linked up with the squad Dhoni wasted no time in playing him, and immediately the Australian bowler replied with consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards.
Like Dhoni, Gambhir too has backed a specific group of players. KKR did experiment more then Chennai, but the fact that seven players got at least 14 of 16 matches in IPL 5 proves that Gambhir was persistent in his approach. Tactically, he outsmarted most of his counterparts by relying on spinners. Kolkata's strategy to employ three spinners – Brett Lee was dropped in favor of Shakib Al Hasan – has proved a smart move on slow and low Indian tracks.
As batsmen, however, Gambhir and Dhoni have been vastly different. Gambhir has been the bedrock of KKR's batting line-up, currently being the second-highest run-getter for the season. His fifties have resulted in victories, and Gambhir's outstanding form has smoothed over the indifferent form of Brendon McCullum, Jacques Kallis, Manoj Tiwary and Yusuf. Dhoni was decidedly off-key during the league stage but sparked to life in the playoffs. His 20-ball 51 against Mumbai was a match-winning effort and against Delhi he smacked 23 off just ten balls as CSK stormed to 222.
Ben Hilfenaus v L Balaji
The two pace bowlers have had to lead their respective team's bowling attacks, and with pleasing results. Hilfenhaus' 12 wickets from eight games have come at an economy of 6.93 and strike-rate of 15; Balaji's 11 wickets have come from eight matches at an outstanding economy of 5.40 – second in the league – and strike-rate of 16.30.
Hilfenhaus starred with consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards and he has taken at least one wicket in each match played in IPL 5. His working over of Virender Sehwag was one of the highlights and when he has not been able to strike early on, Hilfenhaus has managed to take wickets at the death. Against Gambhir and Co. he remains a big threat, notable for his changes of pace and accuracy.
Balaji has been overshadowed by Narine but remains a central figure for KKR – perhaps just how he likes it. In a talented bowling line-up he has been a leader, not because of his wickets tally but because of how cheap he has been. Under the radar, Balaji has stemmed the flow of runs and in low-scoring matches and especially at Eden Gardens he has proven tough to negotiate. Against a strong batting line-up and playing on his home ground, keep an eye on the always-smiling Balaji.
Shakib Al Hasan v Ravindra Jadeja
The similarities are unmistakable: wiry left-arm spinners with whippish actions who bat at the same spot for their IPL teams and who are excellent in the field. Unlike Jadeja, Chennai's $2million player, Shakib has managed just seven of 16 matches but whenever he's got the chance he's performed. His batting hasn't been eye-catching but Shakib's 11 wickets at 15.45 have kept Brett Lee out of Kolkata's playing XI since May 12 and it appears like this will continue in the final.
Jadeja has had much more faith reposed in him. He has played in all 18 matches, scoring 191 runs at 15.91 and taking 12 wickets at 22.75. These are not the kind of figures Chennai's owners would have expected when they doled out big bucks for Jadeja. Save the match against Deccan Chargers in Visakhapatnam, where he scored 48 and picked 5 for 16, Jadeja has struggled. But knowing the ability of CSK players to deliver in big matches, it could be Jadeja that stars in the final.