MUMBAI David Warner has enhanced his leadership qualities with some stellar captain's displays to keep his Sunrisers Hyderabad side on course for a second successive Indian Premier League (IPL) triumph.
The Australia vice-captain struggled in the four-test series in India preceding the IPL but has been at his attacking best in the Twenty20 tournament, where he has registered back-to-back 600-plus run seasons.
The explosive opener was the league's second-highest run-scorer during the franchise's maiden triumph last year and Warner's consistency helped Hyderabad finish third in the eight-team standings by the end of the regular season on Sunday.
Hyderabad will be hoping Warner continues his rich vein of form when the side face Kolkata Knight Riders, who were fourth in the standings and are one of the IPL's most consistent teams, in an elimination showdown on Wednesday.
The victors of the contest will advance to meet the loser of Tuesday's Qualifier 1 match between Mumbai Indians and Rising Pune Supergiant, who finished first and second respectively, for a place in the final.
Australia captain Steve Smith has been Pune's leading scorer and will be hoping he can lead the franchise to an IPL title in their second and last season in the tournament.
Pune and the Gujarat Lions were drafted into the IPL as short-term replacements for the Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, who were banned for the 2016 and 2017 seasons for their involvement in a spot-fixing scandal.
Smith's side will, however, be without their talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes, who has to report for national duty with England ahead of next month's Champions Trophy.
"We have got a couple of options that we can talk about. It is going to be a big loss," Smith told reporters on Sunday. "Stokes has been a big name. But hopefully, the other guys can step up."
The Rohit Sharma-led Mumbai Indians will be playing at their home Wankhede Stadium and will be keen to avenge two regular season losses to state rivals Pune on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to Sunday's final in Hyderabad.
The third Australian captain in the IPL, Kings XI Punjab's Glenn Maxwell, did not have a great tournament, with his side finishing just outside the top four and coming under fire from former India opener Virender Sehwag.
"We always knew that when Maxwell fires, then he can win the match on his own," Sehwag, the franchise's director of cricket operations, said.
"But he didn't fire in eight or nine games. That is a big disappointment, especially since he's experienced, having played for Australia's test and ODI teams.
"He didn't take the responsibility as a captain and didn't perform for Kings XI Punjab."
Gujarat and the Delhi Daredevils also finished outside the playoff spots, while the star-studded Royal Challengers Bangalore finished last among the eight teams.
Last year's runner-up Bangalore, led by India skipper Virat Kohli and boasting the big bats of South Africa's AB de Villiers and West Indian Chris Gayle, won just three of their 14 matches.
(Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by John O'Brien)