Rajasthan Royals
Rajasthan Royals’ Sandeep Sharma (second left) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of Mumbai Indians’ Suryakumar Yadav during the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket match in Jaipur on April 22, 2024. Rajasthan are ahead in the race for the knockout stage with seven wins in eight matches. Image Credit: AFP

Who will make the eliminators in the Indian Premier League? The Rajasthan Royals are a certainty. But the rest? It will be a scramble, with six teams chasing the three other spots. Unpredictability is what makes IPL riveting. Season 17 is no different.

Let’s look at the points table. With 41 of the 70 league matches decided, Rajasthan head the points table and the queue for the knockout stage, beginning on May 21. Anything can happen in 25 days.

The Sanju Samson-led Rajasthan seemed to have pulled away from the pack with seven wins from eight games. That leaves six teams to scrap for the three berths.

What are the chances of Royal Challengers Bengaluru?

Royal Challengers Bengaluru and Punjab Kings, with 4 points apiece, are at the base of the table, which dims their prospects significantly, although a mathematical possibility exists. To harbour that hope, the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Sunrisers Hyderabad should go into a tailspin while Bengaluru and Punjab win their remaining games. A tough prospect, indeed.

Mumbai Indians’ chances depend on six of the seven teams above them. Although the team, captained by Hardik Pandya, have only 6 points, a string of losses for others could be beneficial. So Mumbai supporters will remain optimistic, although such optimism may be misplaced.

Kolkata Knight Riders, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Lucknow Super Giants are on 10 points each, which enhances their chances of a place in the last four. It’s not that easy. The Chennai Super Kings are breathing down their necks with 8 points from eight matches. A bad loss for one of three teams and Chennai would be in the mix, which could happen in the next three weeks.

The impressive wins of Kolkata Knight Riders

Hyderabad’s loss to Bengaluru on Thursday and Chennai’s defeat against Lucknow a couple of days earlier point to the fluctuating fortunes. In three weeks, the points table could wear a very different look.

According to ESPN Cricinfo, eight teams can finish on 12 points each in the fight for two eliminator spots, but that would require a total turnaround in fortunes. That mathematical possibility looks remote, although there’s plenty of room for surprises.

I’ve been impressed with the way Kolkata fashioned their wins. The arrival of Gautam Gambhir as the mentor has rejuvenated the team led by Shreyas Iyer. Sunil Narine’s lusty hitting in the powerplay has been a feature of their wins, and he seems unstoppable. Iyer too has been among the runs, while Phil Salt and Andre Russell have weighed in well. The bowling too has worked well with spinners Narine and Varun Chakravarthy backing the pace of Mitchell Starc and Harshit Rana. So I expect Kolkata to qualify for the eliminators.

Why Chennai Super Kings are a threat

Who will win the other two slots? Chennai can do it. Five-time champions, they know a thing or two about winning. They have a good team, a balanced team. But the opening combo has been a worry with the struggles of Rachin Ravindra and Ajinkya Rahane. Skipper Ruturaj Gaikwad had dropped down to bolster the middle order, where Daryl Mitchell and Ravindra Jadeja have yet to fire consistently, although Shivam Dube has been impressive. The bowling too hasn’t fired yet, barring slinger Matheesha Pathirana. I won’t write them off since they can peak at the right time.

Hyderabad are in the race, but I’m unconvinced. Pat Cummins’ captaincy seems to have done a world of good, but the main thrust has come from his Australian teammate Travis Head, whose blistering batting in the powerplay propelled them to big totals and big wins. But they have conceded runs, leaking over 200 runs in four of their eight games, pointing to a weak attack. I won’t be surprised if the Lucknow Super Giants upstage them.

Lucknow have five wins in eight games, which is a good success rate. Batting has been their mainstay, with skipper KL Rahul leading the way. Quinton de Kock and Nicholas Pooran are consistent, while Marcus Stoinis’ century to beat Chennai will lift their spirits. The same cannot be said about their bowling, although spinners Krunal Pandya and Ravi Bishnoi will have more impact when the pitches wear out as the tournament progresses.

Mumbai are in a tight spot, largely due to their toothless bowling. If Indian pacer Jasprit Bumrah gets support, Pandya’s team could make a run for the last-four stage. But I don’t see that happening, although they might post some upset wins on the strength of their batting led by former captain Rohit Sharma, who’s been striking very well.

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Rishabh Pant’s rousing return for Delhi Capitals

The Delhi Capitals continue to disappoint, although skipper Rishabh Pant’s batting has improved with every match since his return from a grievous injury. Jake Fraser-Gurk has been brilliant, and so has Tristan Stubbs. They need more consistency to improve the win-loss ratio. David Warner will run into form at some stage, but the bowling hasn’t looked incisive to hope for a turnaround in fortunes.

Last year’s finalists Gujarat Titans haven’t inspired confidence. The bowling is secure in the hands of Afghan spinners Rashid Khan and Noor Ahmed, and mediumpacer Mohit Sharma’s bag of tricks has been effective. However, the batting revolves solely around captain Shubman Gill, although Sai Sudharshan and Rahul Tewatia have weighed in occasionally. Gujarat are the only team to beat Rajasthan, yet I don’t see them making a run for the knockout.

My picks for the eliminators are Rajasthan, Kolkata, Chennai, and Lucknow. I could be wrong, as there is still plenty to play for, especially with 29 matches and 58 points at stake. The race for the IPL last four has heated up. Keep watching.