In the 10 years that have passed since the inception of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Mumbai Indians (MI) have earned the distinction of being among the top sides in terms of consistency.
It is that consistency that has helped them earn the perennial tag of 'favourites' as far as finishing among the top four is concerned. Barring the first two editions, and a rare blip last year, Mumbai Indians have made it to the play-offs of every edition, and share the record for most title wins alongside Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and the temporarily suspended Chennai Super Kings (CSK), all of whom have lifted the trophy twice.
Mumbai have had a tremendous season so far, becoming the first side to enter the play-offs and finishing at the top of the table for the first time since 2010. Putting a disappointing run in 2016 behind, MI put up an exhibition of self-belief, as well as fantastic teamwork to finish with 10 wins in their 14 outings in the league stage.
Ahead of the player auction, Mumbai made a couple of tough decisions as far as player retention was concerned, and they decided to bid goodbye to two established names in limited-overs cricket — New Zealanders Corey Anderson and Martin Guptill — among others. They weren't among the biggest spenders in the auction either, going for three eight-figure purchases, with Mitchell Johnson returning to his old dressing room for a sum of Rs 2 crore.
It also was a test of the coaching skills of Mahela Jayawardene, who took over as the head coach of the franchise from Ricky Ponting for this year's edition.
Mumbai have traditionally been considered slow starters in the league, taking their time in building momentum and losing a few games in the early stages in the process. A seven-wicket hammering to Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS) at the MCA Stadium in Pune in their opening fixture was therefore consistent with that theory.
Going by the recent past, fans and experts would have prepared themselves for a few more disappointments in the coming games before finally getting to cheer. Mumbai though, did not let the loss to Pune in their opening game deter their spirit, and produced a spectacular run in the next set of games that propelled them right to the top.
The six consecutive wins that Mumbai notched up saw the emergence of a few trends. Their home ground – the Wankhede – turned into something of a fortress, winning the toss and chasing became something of a forte, and some individual or the other always stood up and produced a turnaround performance that helped pull the side across the line.
Mumbai pulled off easy chases against the likes of KKR, defending champions Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and Gujarat Lions (GL), and were put to the test against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Delhi Daredevils (DD).
At the Chinnaswamy in Bangalore, Samuel Badree's hat-trick reduced Mumbai to 7/4 while chasing a 143-run target, before Kieron Pollard (70) and Krunal Pandya (37 not out) forged a match-winning partnership worth 93 runs. Against the Daredevils a couple of games later, they successfully defended a total as low as 142, thanks to an incredibly disciplined spell by Mitchell McClenaghan (3/24) and Jasprit Bumrah (2/21). Their chase of the 199-run target set by Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) was one of utter dominance, as they ruined the first of Hashim Amla's classic tons by getting to the target with nearly five overs to spare.
After some shakiness in their opening game, Mumbai suddenly seemed invincible, overshadowing any side that came along their way. The squad was brimming with confidence, and the fact that most of the youngsters stood up and put up key performances for their side was a case in point.
The ongoing season has turned out to be a watershed one for Nitish Rana, who bagged the Orange Cap during Mumbai's winning streak with the help of four half-centuries. Or for that matter, the Pandya brothers, who have shown remarkable consistency this season. While the 2015 edition saw the rise of Hardik, 2016 was a breakthrough year was Krunal. The two brothers seemed to have formed something of a tag team this season, whether it was one sibling taking a catch off the bowling of the other, or the two sticking till the very end to finish a chase for their side.
Then of course, there is the yorker specialist Bumrah, whose display in the super over against Gujarat Lions will be etched in the memory of the cricket fraternity for a long time to come. While old warhorse Lasith Malinga seems to have taken the backseat this season, Bumrah and McClenaghan have filled into the role of the chief wicket-takers for the side, and have carried their roles out with a fair degree of precision.
The season has been a mixed one for skipper Rohit Sharma, who struggled to find his touch at the beginning of the tournament, but eventually notched up three half-centuries in the second half of Mumbai's campaign to justify the hype around his talent with the bat. The opening combination had been something of a worry in the first few games, especially since their failure often led to a top-order collapse. While Englishman Jos Buttler and Parthiv Patel started establishing themselves after a few games, West Indian Lendl Simmons fitted into the role beautifully once he took over the role from Buttler, cracking a quickfire 66 in his first appearance in the tournament.
Life came a full circle for Mumbai when it was RPS who snapped their winning streak with a narrow win the the Wankhede. Mumbai did start getting a little complacent towards the last few matches, especially after sealing their berth in the play-offs with a record 146-run hammering of DD. Losses to SRH and KXIP (with Mumbai falling short of pulling off a record chase of a 231-run target against Punjab by seven runs) somewhat hurt their momentum, but was never really perceived as a threat. The Rohit-led side though, ensured they entered the crucial play-offs on a winning note by getting the better of KKR by nine runs in their last game of the group stage.
Mumbai face their bete noire Pune in the first qualifier on Tuesday, and will have to shrug off the ghosts of their losses earlier this season and start afresh against Steve Smith's men. What will boost their morale will be the absence of key match-winner and million-dollar man Ben Stokes from the opposition line-up. For Rohit and Co, it will come down to taking one match at a time, and entering the playing field with the same belief that was visible in their victories. A third title may not be such a herculean task for a side that has put up its best performance in years.