Steve Smith’s Rising Pune Supergiant eye their maiden Indian Premier League crown as they meet tournament favourites Mumbai Indians in a mouth-watering title clash in Hyderabad on Sunday.
Pune, who ended seventh in the eight-team Twenty20 tournament last year, had a mixed start this season only to pick up momentum towards the business end.
Pune’s record buy Ben Stokes proved to be the trump card as the England all-rounder’s showing with the bat and ball was instrumental in the side clinching a play-off berth.
But the team showed in the first qualifier against Mumbai that it is not a one-man army after young spinner Washington Sundar turned out to be the unlikely hero with his match-winning haul of three wickets.
Sundar’s performance made up for Stokes’ absence, after he left for national duty before the knockouts.
However Pune, whose two-year run along with Gujarat Lions ends this season, may be playing their last game in the cash-rich league after being denied an extension by the league’s governing council early this month.
The two banned franchises – Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals – are all set to come back in the next edition of the league, having served two year suspensions for their involvement in 2013 spot-fixing saga.
But captain Smith, who took charge from Mahendra Singh Dhoni ahead of this season, is focussed on the task at hand as he praised the team for its stupendous showing.
“You really need to peak at the right time in tournaments like this… It is a really exciting time for us,” Smith, who has accumulated 421 runs in 14 matches, said after his team booked the final spot.
Dhoni’s finishing powers might be on the wane but the gutsy wicketkeeper-batsman’s presence is enough to intimidate the opposition. His 26-ball unbeaten 40 in the previous game was a proof of his game-changing ability.
“Steve Smith has led the side admirably and got Pune into the finals. Of course he has had great help from Dhoni,” former India captain Sunil Gavaskar said in a column in The Times of India.
Pune’s bowling arsenal boasts fast bowler Jaydev Unadkat who is getting adequate support from fellow paceman Dan Christian, leg-spinner Adam Zampa and Sundar.
– One more hurdle –
But two-time champions Mumbai would be no pushovers as skipper Rohit Sharma insisted that the team would take their confidence forward from the win against the Kolkata Knight Riders in the second qualifier.
Mumbai, who would be playing their fourth IPL final, have been the team to beat in this edition with 11 wins out of their 16 matches.
“We have been really working hard. We don’t shy away from going into the finals the hard way. Today was the perfect day. Gives you a lot of confidence,” Sharma said after their thumping win against Kolkata on Friday.
“We’ve not had a great history against (Pune). Just one more hurdle,” Sharma said, whose team has lost all its three games against Pune this season.
Champions in 2013 and 2015, Mumbai boast of a number of match-winners including some power-packed foreign presence in big-hitter Kieron Pollard and New Zealand fast bowler Mitchell McClenaghan.
Wicket-keeper batsman Parthiv Patel has given the team many good starts in the tournament with Sharma, burly West Indian Pollard and Sharma also rising to the challenge.
Indian seamer Jasprit Bumrah has been the perfect death bowler for Mumbai with his ability to bowl consistent yorkers.