So, four teams out of the five playing the Lanka Premier League have made it into the semi-finals. Doesn't that make the league stage seem a bit meaningless? The Galle Gladiators have won only two league games, while Colombo Kings have won six. Is that even fair? Look, don't ask difficult questions. This is a fledgling tournament in a pandemic year. We've decided to give them a free pass. So here, swallow this preview.
Road to the semi-final
Galle Gladiators lost a bunch of captains even before the tournament began, and crash landed hard into the LPL, Danushka Gunathilaka trying his best to haul them out of the impact crater. They were abysmal in their first five matches, dropping (by rough count) a trillion catches and, leaking frequent boundaries. Gunathilaka and Azam Khan played some good innings through this period, but were not able to undo the damage Galle's bowlers and fielders had inflicted.
Something changed ahead of their second match against Colombo Kings, however, and they have been good ever since. Partly, this is Mohammad Amir finding form. He's taken eight wickets in those games, and gone at an economy rate of only 5.5 in 12 overs. Dhananjaya Lakshan, Lakshan Sandakan, and Nuwan Thushara have also made contributions through this period. Most importantly, their fielding improved dramatically.
Colombo Kings might justly feel miffed that they are at risk of losing a semi-final to a team that won only two out of eight league matches, when Kings have won six. They will be encouraged, however, that their attack is hitting form at the business end. Qais Ahmad has been outstanding through the middle overs. Dushmantha Chameera has also been excellent for them, rushing batsmen with his pace. Andre Russell's batting output subsided through the league stage, but his bowling got better - he's got eight wickets and delivered several crucial overs.
They clearly go in as favourites to win this match. Beyond the biggest names, they also have Laurie Evans (subject to fitness) who is the only centurion in the tournament, as well as the experience of Isuru Udana and Angelo Mathews, and the versatility of Ashan Priyanjan. Offspinner Tharindu Kaushal has not taken many wickets, but he's bowled some tight spells for them as well.
Watch out for
Danushka Gunathilaka, is the top run-scorer in this tournament by such a distance, it's a little ridiculous. His tournament tally of 462 is 173 runs better than that of the second-placed Laurie Evans, who has 289. Gunathilaka has not made fewer than 30 the whole tournament and his strike-rate has been 145.
Qais Ahmad has been fearless when batsmen have tried to hit him, consistently tossing it up to beat them in the flight and take 11 wickets - the second-highest wicket tally so far. His economy rate of 6.46 is also outstanding. In the last match, Ahmad also decked Dambulla Viiking with the bat, clobbering 50 not out off 22 deliveries to seal the final league match for Kings.
Laurie Evans sustained an abdominal injury in the final league match, and was forced to retire hurt. Captain Mathews said his availability was still not confirmed on the eve of the match. If he doesn't play, Lahiru Udara is the likeliest player to appear in the top order, in his place.
Gladiators have two injury concerns - round-arm fast bowler Nuwan Thushara, and batsman Chadwick Walton. Neither of them were ruled out on the eve of the match either. They have Hazratullah Zazai, and Mohamed Shiraz as cover,
Gunathilaka's tally of 64 fours is nearly twice the number any other batsman has managed in the LPL. King's Dinesh Chandimal is second with 34.
Though Evans is a distance second on the run-scorers' list, his strike-rate of 170 is better than Gunathilaka's 145.
Gladiators' lead spinner Lakshan Sandakan has been penetrative, taking eight wickets, but also expensive, going at 9.47 across his 21 overs.
King's most senior batsman Mathews has made only 63 runs this tournament at an average of 10.5 and a strike-rate less than 100.
Gladiators captain Bhanuka Rajapaksa
"The campaign was very demotivating at times. We could have easily won or three or four games. But the morale is very high now after the (virtual) quarter final against Kandy Tuskers."
Kings captain Angelo Mathews
"Unfortunately I haven't fired with the bat this tournament. But gladly the team has carried me through. Starting from Laurie down to Qais, everyone has taken the burden off me. I'm disappointed, but hopefully I can do well in the semi-finals."