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Fans enjoying close IPL finishes

Now that the semi-finalists have been spotted in the Indian Premier League, it is time to rewind to the tape to hear what the pundits said after the auction of franchisees and then players.

Of the four top franchisees --- Mumbai Indians ($111.9 million), Bangalore Royal Challengers ($111.6 million), Deccan Chargers ($107 million) and Chennai Super Kings ($91 million) --- only the last named and least paid Chennai Super Kings could make the semi-finals. Among the top three, Challengers and Chargers finished at the bottom, while Mumbai threw away their chance of making the last four by losing two last-over losses.

The lowest among the franchisee bidders Rajasthan Royals ($67 million) topped the league table, while Kings XI Punjab ($76 million) are in second position ahead of Chennai and Delhi Daredevils ($84 million).

Kolkata Knight Riders ($ 75.09 million), like Mumbai, came close to a semi-final berth, but somewhere down the line they lost way.

Without exception, everyone said Deccan and Chennai are by far the best line-ups with all big names and no-one cared a fig for Rajasthan and not many thought Punjab will be a front-runner. So much for statistical compendiums and analytical hair-splitting, but to be fair to some critics it must be conceded that the Chargers looked a great side on paper.

Barring Royals, almost every team suffered because of international commitments of their players, Chennai and Kolkata were the hardest hit, though Deccan have reason to be aggrieved as they, too, missed Andrew Symonds, the second highest paid player after Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

The question now being asked is about the secret behind the success of Rajasthan and Punjab. Simple, both cleverly picked players who are young, enthusiastic and longer lasting in the context of longevity as their contracts run for three years.

Punjab top order is backed by equally competent middle-order batsmen to make sure they have the balance to pace their innings, whether chasing or setting the target. Above all, their frontline batsmen showed consistency and invariably gave them a great start with Shaun Marsh, James Hopes and Kumara Sangakkara batting solidly. Someone like Mahela Jayawardene did the holding operation in the middle if things went wrong on rare occasions. They did not need to use the services of Ramnaresh Sarwan much.

What to talk of their attack, in Brett Lee, Santakumaran Sreesanth, Irfan Pathan and V R V Singh and spin of Piyush Chawla, Ramesh Pawar and skipper Yuvraj Singh himself to turn his left-arm over, they had easily the most comprehensive bowling line-up.

When the team is on a roll, everything clicks, otherwise as Deccan Chargers skipper Adam Gilchrist said teams like their could also lose seven matches in the last over. In the case of The Kings XI anything they touched it turned gold. They requisitioned the services the two Western Australia players Marsh and Luke Pomersbach and both have done exceedingly well.

At the end of the league phase, Punjab and Rajasthan look better-balanced sides, even though the Daredevils have the power to decimate any attack in the competition what with Virender Sehwag, Orange Cap holder Gautam Gambhir and young Shikhar Dhawan and AB de Villiers giving them fighting totals.

As the battle for the semi-finals intensified, last-over finishes became that much closer and relevant. The Kings XI had mixed luck as they lost to Kolkata Night Riders a match they should have won, but it evened out as they had earlier pulled off a game they should have lost to Mumbai.

Rajasthan play Delhi in the first semi-final and Punjab take on Chennai in the second, both the matches as well as the final will be played at the D Y Patil Stadium in Mumbai.

The semi-final clashes should take the competition a notch higher. At the league stage, Chennai beat Punjab in their first match by piling the highest score of the competition 240 at Mohali and in the return game Lakshmipathi Balaji''s hat-trick laid them low in Chennai.

In the other semi-finals, both Jaipur and Delhi can take comfort from the fact that it will be a decider after being 1-1 in the league. Jaipur got their worst thrashing when they lost by nine wicket at Kotla but by the time they played them again they were riding high and won by three wickets.

The close games will eventually make the IPL worth its weight in gold the huge monies paid to the players, not to speak of the franchisees who had pledged their corporate stakes in bidding for them. As for spectators, they have got all the synthetic excitement in a surreal atmosphere after the sundown, more so in the hospitality boxes. Messrs Inderjit Singh Bindra and Lalit Modii are not complaining as everything has unfolded as they conceptualised for this crazy format.

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