When Mumbai Indians (MI) made six changes for their last group match against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), questions were raised as to whether it was a right move. Mumbai skipper Rohit Sharma revealed that they wanted to test the bench strength. Fair enough. It also provided rest for the regular players. However, the experiment came at a cost. Mumbai had lost their previous two matches and another defeat could have lowered their morale going into the play-offs.
But Saurabh Tiwary, who was playing his first match of Indian Premier League (IPL) 2017, and Ambati Rayudu, coming back into the side from an injury layoff, hit fifties to post 173 on the board. The ‘reserve’ batsmen performed, but Mumbai would miss the services of Jasprit Bumrah, Harbhajan Singh and Mitchell McClenaghan, one felt. Nay said the rest of the bowlers, as they restricted Gautam Gambhir’s men to 164. It was the first time since May 2012 that KKR had lost a match at the Eden Gardens while chasing. Mumbai had managed to end KKR's sterling record with a second string team and put all the doubts over their chances in the match to rest.
“The one thing good about our team management is the reserve players get to play a lot at the nets. You never get a feel that you’re out of the team, which is a big plus point for our team. Mentally we are always prepared,” said Tiwary after the win. Even Lendl Simmons, having replaced Jos Buttler, slammed a blistering fifty straightaway against Delhi Daredevils. This speaks volumes of the preparations MI have been doing behind the scenes and not only on the field. That they found a winning combination very early in the season helped, but Mumbai have not been dependent on individuals to carry them; all the players have pitched in with crucial contributions.
They have done most things right in the tournament, except winning the Maharashtra Derby. It is a record they would like to set straight in the first qualifier at the Wankhede stadium on Tuesday .
The Wankhede sported a flat pitch in the last group match, between Mumbai Indians and Kings XI Punjab, in which almost 450 runs were scored. The pitch had no assistance for the bowlers which provoked MI’s Harbhajan Singh to take a dig at the curator on Twitter. Given how it went, it is unlikely that we would see the same deck for this clash. Teams, however, will still prefer chasing since dew will be a factor in the second innings.
Although Mumbai has a fairly balanced and in-form side, they will have two decisions to make. The first one being Nitish Rana or Rayudu in the starting eleven. Rana, after scoring two consecutive fifties in the first half of the season, has lost his touch. In his last six innings, he has crossed the 20-run mark just once. With Rayudu hitting form immediately after his return to the side, Rohit might be tempted to continue with him. The experience of playing in the play-offs earlier will also work in Rayudu’s favour. The hosts have also opted to give the tough overs to Bumrah which signals both his improvement and Lasith Malinga’s inconsistency. With the Sri Lankan proving to be costly and not being among the wickets, it will be interesting to see whether the team management back the highest wicket-taker in IPL history or play either of Mitchell Johnson or Tim Southee.
Rohit is one of the few lucky captains who has six bowling options at his disposal. He has a lot of variety and more importantly, an experienced bowling line-up. McClenaghan, though expensive, has been their most successful bowler in terms of wickets and Mumbai will look up to him to provide those early inroads. Harbhajan and Krunal Pandya have been excellent in the middle overs and largely successful in keeping the run flow in check. And with Bumrah refining his 'death' bowling skills every game, the hosts will be confident of defending any total.
The batting too seems to have no issues. All the top five batsmen – Parthiv Patel, Simmons, Rohit, Pollard, Rana/ Rayudu – have scored at least one fifty which indicates that there is no over-reliance on any player. The Mumbai skipper, however, has struggled against leg-spinners and Rising Pune Supergiant captain Steve Smith could opt for Adam Zampa as soon as Rohit comes to the crease. It will be exciting to see the plan Rohit copes up with his new weakness.
Pune, on the other hand, have a big headache. After losing Ben Stokes, who left for international duty, the team balance has gone for a toss. If Pune opt for Lockie Ferguson they will have one batsmen short and the inclusion of Usman Khawaja might be a risk, considering that he has been warming the bench the whole season. Khawaja’s most recent competitive match was in January and he could be rusty as well as low on confidence. With Ferguson bagging a Man of the Match award in one of the two games that he has ever played this season, the Kiwi might just edge out the Australian in the starting line-up.
The Indian bowlers, despite lack of international exposure, have been fantastic for Pune. Jayadev Unadkat has displayed maturity and bowled smartly using his cutters and slower ones. He has picked wickets in the power play as well as 'death' overs. He will look to continue his good run. Shardul Thakur, on the other hand, despite being sharp and threatening, has been unlucky. But he dismissed three batsmen in his previous which will do a world of good for his confidence. Washington Sundar, one of the most impressive youngsters this IPL, has been frugal in the first six overs and will aim to do a repeat of that. Daniel Christian also has been a vital member of the Pune bowling line-up.
Ajinkya Rahane has scored a solitary fifty in IPL 2017 and it came in the opening match of the tournament against Mumbai. Since then, he has had a lean patch. In the second clash between these two sides at the Wankhede on 24 April, Rahane got a start before perishing away. Playing at his home ground should help him step up and provide support to his opening partner Rahul Tripathi, who is having a dream season. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, barring an exceptional and a match-winning knock against Sunrisers Hyderabad, has failed to get going. Given his experience in the play-offs, Pune will bank on him to come good.
Records are on the line – Pune have never lost a match at the Wankhede, while Mumbai have won both their play-off matches in home conditions. Mumbai Indians have got another chance to prove which IPL team is the best in Maharashtra. Can they cash in or will Pune continue their dominance?
Mumbai Indians: Parthiv Patel, Lendl Simmons, Ambati Rayudu, Rohit Sharma (C), Krunal Pandya, Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell McClenaghan, Jasprit Bumrah, Lasith Malinga/Mitchell Johnson/Tim Southee.
Rising Pune Supergiant: Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Tripathi, Steve Smith (C), MS Dhoni, Manoj Tiwary, Lockie Ferguson, Daniel Christian, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Jaydev Unadkat, Adam Zampa.