Mumbai Indians versus Chennai Super Kings (CSK) may be the ultimate clash of the titans in the IPL, but there is something about Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) playing that grabs every eyeball that's interested in cricket.
The reason: It's Virat Kohli vs MS Dhoni. The pupil versus the master. The new versus the old. Aggression versus cool. It's two starkly different ideologies at play.
One can say that CSK are simply the better team, as their place on the league table and their historical record in the IPL suggests. But last night (April 25) was virtually a Bollywood-esque remake of a clash between these two teams back in 2012.
Back then, Kohli wasn't RCB's captain yet. That match was won by CSK only because despite getting over 200 runs, RCB had fallen short of a par score due to a collapse at the end. Last night, however, was entirely about the two captains.
The new pitch at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru is somewhat slow and turns quite a bit in the first innings, which is why it took some incredible batting by AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock, and Mandeep Singh to get RCB to 205. When de Villiers was batting, it looked like RCB would reach 220. It took a masterful field adjustment from MS Dhoni to get de Villiers back in the dugout.
What was somewhat less noticeable was how well Dhoni was reading the game by moving his fielders only a metre or so to what turned out to be crucial positions, because it meant the difference between a single and a boundary. The gaps were plugged as well as possible, and this helped CSK restrict RCB to a total we now know is quite chaseable.
RCB still had a good total on the board, and would've really fancied their chances once they'd taken four wickets inside the first 10 overs. Fielding two quality spinners such as Yuzvendra Chahal and Washington Sundar along with a confident Umesh Yadav meant that for once, they were neck and neck with CSK's bowling attack.
The key was death bowling and field placements. Even at the international level, Kohli has made very questionable decisions when it comes to bowling changes and field settings. The 2017 Champions Trophy loss to Sri Lanka was a glaring example of this. On multiple occasions, it has seemed like Kohli - the captain - is clueless when the tide is going against his team. He likes control and when he loses it, he struggles to regain it.
Dhoni, on the other hand, is a master of improvisation. His greatest weakness as a Test captain becomes one of his key strengths in limited-overs cricket. He does not need to feel fully in control of the game at all times because he understands it so well that he can mould himself and his team for any situation that arises.
When a batsman is dominating his bowlers, Dhoni looks at the minutiae. Where is the batsman looking to score? Which bowlers is he targeting? What are his trigger movements? Where does he want to play the next ball? These things enabled him to move Sam Billings from point to cover, where de Villiers sliced the ball to.
Kohli is all about aggression and control. He likes to choke oppositions from ball one and dominate them completely. He likes to follow a script and needs things to go according to plan. The problem is that things in T20 cricket, especially the IPL, have a tendency to not go according to plan, and this becomes Kohli's undoing.
Looking back at the 15 months for which Kohli has captained India in limited-overs cricket, one finds that India has done extremely well. But a closer look reveals that this has been a period where Kohli had the best bowling attack India has had access to in years, and this has enabled them to dominate oppositions. Any time the opposition finds a way to counter India's bowlers, it leads to a heavy defeat. Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, New Zealand in the first ODI of the home series last year, and South Africa in Johannesburg are all examples of this.
Perhaps, Dhoni's biggest strength as captain is that he knows how to accept that he may not be fully in control of the game. He sent Ravindra Jadeja to bat at no 5 yesterday. It was a poor decision, but perhaps Dhoni accepted that the game was possibly beyond their reach, and it would be good for Jadeja to get some time at the crease. And Dhoni - the batsman - proved Dhoni - the captain - wrong, showing he knows how to accept his own mistakes.
Malleability, flexibility, and improvisation are very important while leading a cricket team and the key to these is a cool head. That's why Dhoni continues to be a better limited-overs captain than Kohli even now. We see how his inputs from behind the stumps prove crucial in international matches but in the IPL, we get to see him actually beat Virat Kohli.