Ahmedabad: Barring a surprise, Chennai Super Kings skipper M.S. Dhoni will step out as a player for the last time when his side take on holders Gujarat Titans in the IPL final on Sunday.
The cricketing great is widely expected to retire - he has only said he will decide on his future later this year - and the spotlight will be on him with Chennai eyeing a record-equalling fifth title at the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad.
Standing in Chennai’s way will be Gujarat opener Shubman Gill, fresh from smashing a century - his third in the IPL - in the final playoff on Friday at the same venue.
Gill’s three IPL tons have all come in his last four innings, his latest a brutal 129 off 60 balls to demolish five-time winners Mumbai Indians.
Gujarat Skipper Hardik Pandya said the 23-year-old “will be a superstar in international and franchise cricket”.
And former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar, on the ESPNcricinfo website, called Gill a “once in a generation player”.
Gill leads this season’s batting chart with 851 runs after surpassing Bangalore skipper Faf du Plessis (730) in the final playoff and Gujarat will look to him for a starting flourish.
Gujarat have extended a fairytale journey which began with a title in their debut season last year, when Pandya raised the Cup in Ahmedabad in front of a record 101,566 fans at the 132,000-capacity stadium.
With home advantage, betting odds make the team the slightest of favourites to repeat the feat on Sunday, but Pandya remained cautious about their chances.
“We have to play good cricket, put in our 100 percent,” he said. “Knockouts could go either way.”
Afghanistan spin ace Rashid Khan and pace spearhead Mohammed Shami have been key to the team’s success with 55 wickets between them in 16 matches.
Shami has bagged 28 - one more than Rashid - and the fight for the purple cap for the highest wicket-taker in the tournament goes down to the wire.
Dhoni’s Chennai took second spot after the group stage behind table-toppers Gujarat but beat the defending champions in the first playoff earlier this week to bag a spot in the final.
The 41-year-old Dhoni is a master tactician dubbed “Captain Cool” for his calm under pressure.
“You see the wicket, you see conditions, and you keep adjusting the field,” Dhoni said.
“I can be an annoying captain because I change the field every time. It can be annoying but I believe in my gut feel. That’s why I keep telling the fielders to keep an eye on me.”
His ability to run between the wickets has been hampered by a knee injury and he has usually batted at number eight this season, looking to hit a few sixes to finish off the innings.
Called “Thala” - meaning “leader” in Tamil - the former India captain has attracted huge crowds across venues in what is believed to be his last playing season.
But Dhoni said he would always be available in any capacity for Chennai, a team he has captained since the start of the IPL, which began in 2008 and is the world’s richest T20 tournament.
Openers Devon Conway (625 runs) and Ruturaj Gaikwad (564) have provided Chennai with good starts, and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja came into his own in the team’s last win.
Indian fast bowler Tushar Deshpande and Sri Lankan quick Matheesha Pathirana have led the bowling charge with 21 and 17 wickets.
Pathirana, called “Baby Malinga” for his ability to bowl yorkers with a slinging action similar to former pace ace Lasith Malinga, has been Dhoni’s go-to bowler at the back end.