"God's been kind to me as well, but I think God gave him a little better today."
Hardik Pandya perhaps summed it up the best when he spoke about himself and MS Dhoni at the post-match presentation. He and his Gujarat Titans leadership team put together a squad that could pose for the Spider-Man finger pointing meme with Chennai Super Kings, the eventual champions. As Hardik said, they ticked more small boxes than perhaps any other team in the last two years. They played the old CSK style: stay in the game, let the opposition make mistakes, and pounce on said mistakes.
Titans even snuck from under CSK's noses the most-highly regarded youngster in Tamil Nadu, Sai Sudharsan, for a price (INR 20 lakh) lower than his Tamil Nadu Premier League [TNPL] worth (INR 21.6 lakh). They had a clear powerplay specialist, a clear death specialist and two world-class spinners, a structure CSK strive for all the time. They took fewer risks with the bat than all teams bar Delhi Capitals and Sunrisers Hyderabad at the bottom of the table.
Hardik was way too gracious - and proud - to say it in as many words, but the cricketing gods were a little kinder to Dhoni and his team. Dhoni won the toss with the rain around. The rain arrived at the correct time, and the other pitches on the square got flooded because of the high-speed winds to go with the rain. When play resumed, all the grip from the surface was gone, and CSK had to maintain a high rate over 15 overs as opposed to 20.
Another reason Hardik wouldn't talk about it is perhaps because there is nothing to be gained by thinking about it. It is the nature of the beast that is T20 cricket. On an earlier night, Dhoni decided to bat first and the dew, which had been absent on the preceding nights, chose to make an appearance and completely changed the grammar of the contest. When Hardik chose to chase with the same dew in mind in the first Qualifier - same ground, same team - the grass remained dry, and the CSK spinners choked them out.
These variances are something you have to learn to live with. The final was heavily skewed the moment it began raining. All you can do is find a way before and after the rain.
Before it rained
Chennai is now home to the most successful IPL team in India, but it is still not entirely comfortable with players with a bit of individuality. You can be chastised for not following the herd and talking to Dhoni after a game. It can be considered rude, and brought back when you are struggling in the next match, and the world is asking if you should be retired out to allow someone else come and score runs. Sudharsan was eventually retired out in that game.
Yet the idea in this format is to remove any personal sentiment from decisions made for the larger good of the team. There is no shame in being recalled once you have fulfilled your role and the next step you are trying is not coming off.
Anyway, neither does Dhoni want that reverence nor is it disrespectful to go for your laps after a match. It is perhaps a sign of an excellent cricketer that Sudharsan doesn't do something just because it is seen as the right thing to do.
There is a competitive nature to Sudharsan that caught R Ashwin's eye when he was 17. Ashwin remembers being amazed such a young kid had an actual game plan against him. If a Test bowler goes to club cricket, it is not unusual for batters to be intimidated. Sudharsan, though, played Ashwin with composure, staying back to defend balls and forcing Ashwin to overpitch. Ashwin had left midwicket open, but Sudharsan stayed deep in his crease until he got a ball full enough to hit against the spin.
Ashwin remembers his game was weak against seam at that time, but "four months later, he was leaving balls nicely and moving into drives with his bat within his body". Ten months later, he had filled out to fulfil the strength demands of the game. "Eighteen months later, he was tonking sixes in the TNPL," Ashwin told ESPNcricinfo.
That is why two years ago Ashwin came up with a ringing endorsement for Sudharsan, asking for him to be picked for the Tamil Nadu senior side. This March when Sudharsan's name came up in the TNPL auction, Ashwin, representing Dindigul Dragons, lifted the paddle immediately and didn't even bring it down for a few minutes. Eventually they didn't have enough money for Sudharsan, but Titans did.
They didn't even have to dig deep. They got Sudharsan at his base price. "The trajectory of his improvement told me that there is a TN player we can be proud of," Ashwin said. "It's visible when you see him compete. Ball striking or bowling a quick ball or a good action is good to have, but how you harness it with supplementary skills makes you a talent."
At 21, Sudharsan came into the side this season as an injury replacement for Kane Williamson and immediately did well in that anchor role. Hardik later took on the anchoring responsibility. Also they needed someone who could be available to bowl as Hardik went four matches without bowling. That brought Dasun Shanaka in for Sudharsan.
Towards the end of the tournament, though, Hardik resumed bowling and Titans went back to Sudharsan. He is still built of a slight frame compared to some of the hitters. Big hitting doesn't seem to be his natural game. Yet the competitor in him found a way in the IPL 2023 final.
Against the one team that had no uncapped batter, which happens to be from his home state, Sudharsan served a reminder. After another slow start, it was against the high pace of Matheesha Pathirana, CSK's designated back-end specialist, that Sudharsan began to display his wares. He drove Pathirana wide of mid-off before using his pace to scythe him behind square. Then he took on the other Sri Lankan stumbling block: Maheesh Theekshana, hitting two sixes over midwicket in one over.
By all accounts, T20 is not Sudharsan's best format, but he fell one shot short of a hundred at a strike rate of over 200 in an IPL final that Titans needed to make all the running in. They needed an above-par total, and they believed Sudharsan had provided them that.
After it rained
We all know the system tends to favour the chasing sides when it rains. It was no different here. Still, 171 in 15 overs is not a walk in the park.
Titans were too robust a team to be beaten playing the same brand of cricket. They romped to the head of the table in the league stages yet again. The one team that could stop them was CSK, who had remodelled themselves. They unlocked the T20 beast inside Ajinkya Rahane, they picked a designated spin hitter in Shivam Dube, intent bunny Moeen Ali floated, and Dhoni himself batted at No. 8.
With so much depth in their ranks, CSK freed the batters to go all out in attack. Mumbai Indians were the most attacking side, attempting a boundary every 2.3 balls. The conservative Titans did so every 2.9 balls, while CSK sat bang in the middle at 2.6. It is not usual for them to be so proactive.
Attacks from this long batting order kept coming at Titans like sea waves. In that phase, albeit with the conditions skewed against them, Titans might have felt they were up against an upgraded version of themselves.
If it was a 21-year-old uncapped batter that gave them a target to defend, a veteran fast bowler took the game to the extreme deep end. Mohit Sharma had agreed to travel as a nets bowler with Titans. It is a taxing job because teams like to rest their main bowlers during training days, and the batters need some quality bowling to face. It means a lot of bowling, which, in Mohit's case ended up impressing the team management so much they drafted him into the main squad.
Noor Ahmad brought Titans back, and they began to edge ahead in Mohit's first over when he got rid of the other comeback man, Rahane. Only to be taken apart by a man playing his last match, Ambati Rayudu.
With the slower ball not gripping, Mohit ditched it and began to nail the yorkers with just 13 required off the last over. Twice he overcooked the yorker, but those low full tosses were not easy to hit.
Having brought it down to 10 off two, should Mohit now have gone to his stock ball: slower and into the surface? Long chats took place before he ran in. A message, in all likelihood, came from Ashish Nehra because suddenly he was having a drink from a bottle. It is a question that becomes prominent only because he failed to nail the next yorker, and Ravindra Jadeja was good enough to take toll.
It wasn't decisions or execution made on these two balls that decided the match. As Hardik said, it was Dhoni's destiny to first lift Jadeja and then the trophy. It was perhaps written in the stars that this IPL, which felt like an extended celebration of Dhoni's career through loud crowds leaving him in tears with their love, was his. In a format where luck - which is not the opposite of skill - plays an even bigger role than in the rest of cricket, CSK's unlucky days came before the playoffs.
Titans tried their darnedest to spoil CSK's final lucky day, and they couldn't have done much else. All that remained to do now was to tell their players they were proud of them and concede that if they had to lose, they didn't mind losing to him.