Ashwin and Chahal
Rajasthan Royals' Ravichandran Ashwin (right) celebrates with Yuzvendra Chahal during the Indian Premier League eliminator cricket match in Ahmedabad on May 22, 2024. Ashwin and Chahal could play a decisive role in the second qualifier at Chennai on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

Who will make the IPL final? Rajasthan Royals or Sunrisers Hyderabad? It’s too close to call, I’d say. If you have to choose the winner, whom would you pick?

My choice is the Rajasthan Royals. Let me explain the reasons. They’re not straightforward, but humour me.

Rajasthan have been the dominant team in the first half of the league, winning seven of their eight matches before the rot set in. They have a well-rounded side: strong in the powerplay, solid middle order, but inconsistent late middle order. The new ball attack is incisive, with Trent Boult as the spearhead, while Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal are two of the best spinners in the league.

Why Rajasthan are unpredictable

It makes Rajasthan a balanced side, capable of handling most situations, which they did until the campaign hit skid row. That’s the worry. When things don’t work well, Rajasthan can go into a tailspin.

Hyderabad will be hoping for just that. They will want to catch the Sanju Samson-led side on an off day. It wouldn’t take much since Rajasthan have a propensity to implode. They nearly did against the Royal Challengers Bengaluru in Wednesday’s eliminator, making the chase more difficult than it was. That was a Rajasthan short on confidence after five winless games (four losses and an abandoned tie).

In contrast, Hyderabad punched above their weight and constantly bounced back from defeats. That resilience has been the hallmark of the team since Pat Cummins took over the captaincy this year. They have become an excellent fighting unit.

Hyderabad, the batting machine

Travis Head tops the list of performers with his brilliant batting, which has inspired fellow opener Abhishekh Sharma. Heinrich Klassen, Nitish Kumar Reddy, and Abdul Samad have stepped up, and Rahul Tripathi’s induction in place of Aiden Markram has helped staunch early breaches.

Undoubtedly, Hyderabad is heavy on batting, evident in the six 200-plus totals they have amassed in 14 league games — only KKR have equalled it. Moreover, SRH have broken the record for the highest score twice this season. So Rajasthan will look to rein in Hyderabad’s batsmen, and they have the bowlers to do it.

Boult will be the key. Rajasthan will expect the left-arm pacer to emulate Arshdeep Singh of the Punjab Kings and Mitchell Starc of the Kolkata Knight Riders by dismissing Head in the first over. If the New Zealander’s inswinging delivery rattles Head’s stumps, Rajasthan would have wrested the initiative, as the Australian opener has been a thorn in the sides of rivals this season.

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Head’s wicket wouldn’t be enough because Hyderabad bats deep with plenty of stalwarts, including the aggressive Abhishek Sharma and Klassen. Rajasthan will take heart from the fact that the Chepauk wicket could be slow and offer grip to the spinners. That’s not conducive to Hyderabad’s strokeplay, and Ashwin and Chahal will have a field day.

Spin, that’s precisely Hyderabad’s problem. They don’t have quality spinners to attack if the pitch affords turn. Leggie Vijayakanth Viyaskanth is not enough to trouble the Rajasthan batters, who are good players of spin. That’s where the Chennai battle could be won and lost. Hyderabad’s pace pack may not be enough to win at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium on Friday.

Rajasthan’s batting may be fragile in the absence of Jos Buttler, but their spinners could catapult them into the final. Unless they implode.

A Rajasthan-Kolkata clash on Sunday looks likely.