Virat Kohli is Bangalore’s highest-paid player, but he justified the contract with a record-setting season in the Indian Premier League. Credit Dibyangshu Sarkar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Gujarat Lions were supposed to be a short-term fill-in in the Indian Premier League, plugging some of the holes left in the schedule after the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals were suspended for two seasons after a betting scandal.
The Lions have done much more than fill in during their first season, and on Tuesday they will play Royal Challengers Bangalore for a spot in the final after finishing the regular season in first place with a 9-5 record. Six teams entered the final weekend clustered near the top, all separated by one win.
The Lions are supposed to be around only through next season, and “We’ll understand the economics of running an I.P.L. franchise in about two years,” said Keshav Bansal, the 24-year-old owner of the Lions. The franchise proved quickly, though, that it knows how to build a winner. It seized an early lead in the standings with a 6-1 start, then lost three straight before finishing strong.
“It is never easy to come in as a new franchise and make the finals, but from the outset, the management, coaches and senior players have been determined to go on and win,” said Brendon McCullum, the former New Zealand captain who now plays for Gujarat.
McCullum, considered by many to be the best cricket captain in the last few years, praised Gujarat’s captain, Suresh Raina, for his calmness on and off the field. The pair joined in a batting partnership that led Gujarat to victory on Saturday as it chased a target of 173 in their final game at the Mumbai Indians, the defending champions.
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Raina is the only player to have made the playoffs in all nine seasons of the I.P.L., and his 58 not out against Mumbai kept him ahead of Virat Kohli, of Bangalore, as the league’s all-time run scorer.
Raini and Kohli will face off Tuesday in Bangalore, and the Royal Challengers are possibly the hottest team in the league after four straight wins. The two teams split their regular-season series, 1-1, but the Royal Challengers won by 144 runs when the two faced off in Bangalore on May 14.
The winner Tuesday will advance to the final on Sunday, again in Bangalore. The loser will play the winner of Wednesday’s match between the third- and fourth-place teams, Sunrisers Hyderabad and the Kolkata Knight Riders, on Friday for the other spot in the final. Both the Wednesday and Friday matches are in Delhi.
So it is possible that Gujarat will have to beat Bangalore twice in the Royal Challengers’ stadium to win the I.P.L.
The No.2 seed has won the last five finals, but there are other reasons for Gujarat to worry about Bangalore. Each franchise has a budget of about $10 million for players, and Bangalore focused on building a Murderers’ Row with its batting lineup. It spent $1.9 million on Kohli, $1.4 million on the South African star AB de Villiers and $1.2 million on the West Indian thumper Chris Gayle.
Kohli, in spite of his huge price tag, has proven to be a good value and led the league with 919 runs — a record — while de Villiers was third with 603.
Kohli produced what could be the most dominant batting season ever in the I.P.L. He scored 100 or more in four matches this season; the rest of the league reached that number only twice. In his other games, Kohli reached 50 six times.
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It hasn’t been just about batting for the Royal Challengers. The wrist spinner Yuzvendra Chahal took three wickets against Delhi on Saturday to give Bangalore a low total to chase in a win-or-else game. Chahal ended the season with 19 wickets, most in the league.
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The Wednesday match between Hyderabad and Kolkata will be a repeat of their regular-season finale, which Kolkata won to clinch a playoff berth.
The playoffs will be missing one usual face, India’s veteran wicket-keeper batsman and captain, MS Dhoni.
Dhoni and Raini were stalwarts on the Super Kings, who had made the playoffs every season before they were suspended.
Dhoni switched to the other rookie team this season, Rising Pune Supergiants. Dhoni did show his old magic last Saturday against Kings XI Punjab in what was effectively a playoff to avoid last place. Needing 22 runs from the final over against the Punjab bowler Axar Patel, Dhoni struck 24 to keep Pune out of the basement. And nobody was terribly surprised.