Shreyas Iyer and Pat Cummins
Captains Shreyas Iyer of Kolkata Knight Riders (left) and Pat Cummins of Sunrisers Hyderabad. The teams clash on Tuesday for a place in the IPL 2024 final. Image Credit: AFP & ANI

Kolkata Knight Riders are on the cusp of winning their third IPL title. Actually, there are two games away — two tricky games. First, they must cross the qualifier hurdle, where Sunrisers Hyderabad wait on Tuesday. That could be an explosive encounter, a possible run-fest at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.

Two of the three matches at the venue have been high-scoring affairs, while the Gujarat Titans slumped to season’s lowest score in the third. So it depends on the pitch. Yet we might see a run deluge.

Why? Both teams have an abundance of batting talent. Many of Hyderabad’s wins were built on tall totals, with Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma blazing through the powerplay. That’s matched by Sunil Narine and Phil Salt, who produced rollicking starts for Kolkata to amass runs or chase down stiff targets.

How Sunrisers Hyderabad came into the reckoning

Hyderabad have been a revelation this season. The arrival of Pat Cummins has been a significant factor, especially his captaincy. The Australian skipper owes a lot to Head, who has set the IPL alight with his strokeplay, only for his opening partner Sharma to follow suit. Sharma has always been a promising youngster prone to inconsistent displays. In Head’s company, he’s blossomed into a high-calibre aggressive batsman. An India cap is not far from him.

Heinrich Klassen and Nitish Kumar Reddy have provided the thrust from the middle order, although Aiden Markram has had a forgettable season. His replacement Rahul Tripathi showed against the Punjab Kings on Sunday that it was a mistake to bench him. He should be regular in the playoff games. Abdul Samad has played the finisher role so well that Hyderabad have stormed through the slog overs.

Kolkata are no laggards: they have five 200-plus scores in the 12 innings they’ve batted. How did that happen? Perhaps the single factor has been the elevation of Narine to the opening slot, and he’s hammered rival attacks in the same fashion he did several seasons ago.

Salt came into the KKR side after Jason Roy withdrew, and he’s fully used the opportunity. With Narine, he forged a fearsome partnership to set up Kolkata’s innings with electric scoring in the powerplay.

Skipper Shreyas Iyer had held the middle order well, with Ramandeep Singh, Venkatesh Iyer and Andre Russell contributing handsomely. Rinku Singh is yet to fire away, but he hasn’t been called into action on several occasions. That is a reflection of KKR’s consistency.

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Though the two are evenly matched in batting, KKR steals a march with an incisive attack. Any team with Mitchell Starc will fancy their chances, even if he is off-colour. The Australian paceman is yet to justify his $2.98 million price tag, but KKR isn’t complaining. That is mainly due to the efforts of Harshit Rana and Russell.

KKR’s web of spin

Spin is where Kolkata stand heads and shoulders above others, except the Rajasthan Royals. Narine and Varun Chakravarthy are wicket-takers and have set up several wins. The two will play a decisive role in the playoffs.

Hyderabad cannot match them; they don’t have spinners of such quality. Leggie Vijayakanth Viyaskanth and left-armer Shahbaz Ahmed pale in comparison, although the duo has been steady. Cummins banks on a bunch of mediumpacers to keep SRH afloat, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been sharp in the powerplay, while Natarajan’s blend of slower deliveries and yorkers has helped keep it tight in the middle overs and the slog. The skipper too has weighed in to provide timely breakthroughs.

So who will win on Tuesday? KKR’s superior bowling will be decisive in the first qualifier, which should catapult them into the final. But this is cricket, T20 cricket. Stranger things have happened.