A few years ago, a clash between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Mumbai Indians (MI) at this stage of the season would have been framed as a dress rehearsal for the final.
However, Thursday's IPL contest at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai will see both sides take the field with different goals.
While not mathematically out of the race yet, MS Dhoni's team faces a tough road to the playoffs. MI has already been eliminated.
Tackling spin has been MI’s bugbear in 2022. And Suryakumar Yadav being ruled out of the IPL with an injury has added to its woes. His calm and assured run-accumulation in the middle order, against pace (SR: 169.60) and spin (SR: 122.64), made him MI's most assured batter in an otherwise wretched season.
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MI has lost 23 wickets and managed the second-worst run rate (7.49) of all teams against spin so far, which CSK could look to exploit through its spin-heavy attack. Sri Lankan off-spinner Maheesh Theekshana and England's Moeen Ali have offered the control and ability to bowl difficult overs inside the PowerPlay and towards the death overs.
Their match-up with Kieron Pollard, MI's greatest finisher, will be interesting. Pollard has scored more runs against CSK (583) than versus any other team but the natural decline in his power-hitting abilities has left Rohit Sharma's side considerably weaker.
Pollard vs spin has been a lopsided contest this year. He has been out five times while striking at a touch over 80. His overall strike rate of 107.46 in IPL-15 is his worst since his IPL debut in 2010.
If Pollard is rested, Dewald Brevis could replace him. An otherwise erratic Ishan Kishan has shown promise with scores of 51, 45 and 26 in his last three games. But trying him at two-drop (314 in nine innings at strike rate of 146.04 at 4 in IPL 2020) and Tilak Varma at 3 could also be an option, with Brevis opening the batting.
Meanwhile, CSK suffered a blow on the eve of the game as Ravindra Jadeja was ruled out of the tournament due to a rib injury. He had also missed the last game against Delhi Capitals. It has been a disappointing season for Chennai’s bonafide finisher.
But CSK has found stability at the top with three consecutive fifty-plus stands since Devon Conway's return. Conway has been severe against spin, striking at 196.55 while his opening partner Ruturaj Gaikwad has taken down pacers, hitting at a touch under 135. Their PowerPlay tactics against MI will make for an exciting watch.
In the pace bowling department, CSK has relied mainly on left-arm pacer Mukesh Choudhary, who, in the first leg against Mumbai, took 3 for 19.
MI will be relieved at Jasprit Bumrah’s return to form against KKR (5 for 10) — the best figures overall this season — after he went wicketless in seven out of the first 10 games.
As a tough group stage draws to a close, CSK will battle for survival while MI will seek a new blueprint for 2023.