It’s the CPL blue bloods vs the sea blue jerseys in this year’s final. One side is very familiar with their role in the winner takes all championship showdown. The other couldn’t be more alien to the playoffs, let alone playing for the title.
Three-time champions Trinbago Knight Riders have been the chalk team virtually since the CPL’s inception. They have never missed the playoffs and have topped the regular season table in three of the last four seasons. The old Oakland Raiders NFL teams of the late Al Davis era might have been envious of the commitment to excellence the Knight Riders have demonstrated in 2020 though, reeling off a run of 11 straight victories as they attempt to be the first CPL side to finish as undefeated champions.
Though the Knight Riders have more than their fair share of stars to draw upon, the standout quality from this group has been their collective depth. Sunil Narine, Colin Munro and Ali Khan have all missed time due to injury, but the Knight Riders haven’t skipped a beat as they received handy contributions from unheralded sources like Tion Webster, Jayden Seales and 48-year-old legspinner Pravin Tambe. You know TKR is a juggernaut when Akeal Hosein – arguably the fourth choice spinner behind Narine, Fawad Ahmed and Khary Pierre – is claiming a Man of the Match award in the tournament semi-final after claiming 3 for 14 in a nine-wicket romp over the Jamaica Tallawahs.
Standing across from the Knight Riders at Brian Lara Academy on Thursday morning will be the St Lucia Zouks. They have been bottom-feeders throughout their history, making the playoffs for just the second time in eight seasons this year. After years of historic futility, an infusion of Afghan might in 2020 has sparked Daren Sammy‘s side to their first ever tournament final.
A decade ago it would have been unthinkable for three Afghanistan players to be present in all the world’s franchise leagues combined. But the country’s players are in ever-increasing demand and the trio in the Zouks starting XI – Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran and Zahir Khan – are a microcosm of the battling qualities which have seen both Afghanistan and the Zouks rise in prominence.
Their fighting spirit, along with shrewd captaincy from Sammy, has spread throughout the team. On paper, one might think it impossible for a team that has produced just two half-centuries with the bat all season – both by Roston Chase – to be capable of going all the way to the final. But a never say die attitude in the field has galvanized them to some improbable wins. Defending 92 to beat the reigning champions Barbados Tridents tops the list, but sparking a Tallawahs collapse from 84 for 0 to defend a total of 145 isn’t far behind. So it shouldn’t be too surprising then that their bowling unit led by Scott Kuggeleijn, Nabi and Zahir shredded the Guyana Amazon Warriors for 55 in the semis, the second lowest total in CPL history.
Logic says the Knight Riders are the obvious choice to prevail on home soil in the final. But there is nothing logical about how the Zouks have continued to defy the odds to arrive alongside them with tournament hardware on the line. One way or the other, there will be a historic result – a maiden undefeated champion or a maiden Zouks crown – by Thursday afternoon.
Trinbago Knight Riders WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
St Lucia Zouks WWLLW
In the spotlight
Tion Webster only played half the matches in the league stage, but he has been finding form at the right time as a more than capable replacement in the top-order, first for Narine and then for Munro. He ended the league stage with an unbeaten 41 off 33 balls against St Kitts & Nevis Patriots, then followed it up in the semi-finals with 44 not out off 43 balls against the Tallawahs. While both innings came chasing targets of 78 and 108 respectively, many top order players have found batting tricky in the second innings on tough surfaces. Webster on the other hand has remained carefree and that confidence may play a significant role in the final.
Last year it was Hayden Walsh Jr who played a leading role for the Barbados Tridents on their way to the title. Another Liberta Blackhawk from Antigua has a chance to play a key role if his team lifts the trophy in 2020. Rahkeem Cornwall has hit the most sixes for the Zouks, with 13 in nine innings. In an event where most batsmen have struggled to time the ball to the rope, his strike rate of 142.62 has given the Zouks short but fiery starts. The big man showed off his agility in the field on Tuesday’s semi-final with a superb catch diving forward at slip to end the first innings.
If the Knight Riders were unwilling to risk Colin Munro in the semi-final, it’s unlikely he’ll be fit enough for this game. Ali Khan has bowled below full pace in his two matches back from a hamstring injury. TKR management will have to decide whether they value his experience in a final – he took a wicket first-ball in 2018 against the Amazon Warriors at the same venue to give TKR a huge lift – is enough to keep his place ahead of Seales.
Trinbago Knight Riders (possible): 1 Sunil Narine, 2 Lendl Simmons, 3 Tion Webster, 4 Tim Seifert (wk), 5 Darren Bravo, 6 Kieron Pollard (capt.), 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Akeal Hosein, 9 Khary Pierre, 10 Fawad Ahmed, 11 Ali Khan/Jayden Seales.
The Zouks have had a fairly settled side down the stretch of the season. It’s unlikely they have any fitness issues after a semi-final which lasted a combined total of 18.1 overs. Expect an unchanged XI.
St Lucia Zouks (possible): 1 Rahkeem Cornwall, 2 Mark Deyal, 3 Andre Fletcher (wk), 4 Roston Chase, 5 Mohammad Nabi, 6 Najibullah Zadran, 7 Javelle Glen, 8 Daren Sammy (capt.), 9 Scott Kuggeleijn, 10 Kesrick Williams, 11 Zahir Khan.
The five highest totals in the CPL this season (all 172 or more) have all come in 10 am starts at Brian Lara Academy, all made by the team batting first in victory. Though T20 strategy traditionally points teams towards chasing, things could be different in the final, if only because the Knight Riders were responsible for four of those five wins and the Zouks round out the stat. Expect a higher scoring contest than the pair of semi-final duds.
Stats and trivia
The two half-centuries scored by the entire Zouks roster – both by Chase – are the fewest for any CPL finalist since the inaugural season when the 2013 CPL champion Jamaica Tallawahs had one apiece from Kumar Sangakkara and Chris Gayle. However, the Zouks total of two is the fewest for any team in the current 10-match regular season format as teams only played seven league stage matches in the 2013 CPL.
Darren and Dwayne Bravo are the only remaining players from the 2015 Trinidad & Tobago Red Steel squad, the previous incarnation of the Knight Riders, which won the first of the three championships for the TKR franchise.
Though the Zouks don’t have a title as a franchise, it would not be the first title for several of their players. Deyal played one match as a member of the Red Steel in 2015. Kesrick Williams was the leading wicket-taker for the 2016 champion Tallawahs while Leniko Boucher joined the Zouks in 2020 after being a member of the 2019 champion Tridents.
“We have come here and played fantastic cricket throughout the tournament and we need the cherry on top of it. Looking around the dressing room, you don’t see overconfidence. You see guys who want to improve each and every time out.”
TKR captain Kieron Pollard on his team’s subdued reactions after a nine-wicket win in the semi-final.
“We didn’t come here to celebrate a semi-final. You don’t carry anything from before into the finals. It’s a clean slate. Whoever plays good cricket on the day… on Thursday we’re going to come with the same attitude.”
Zouks captain Daren Sammy on his side’s approach to the final after bowling the Amazon Warriors out for 55.