It was deja vu for Mumbai Indians in more ways than one on Thursday when they went down by seven wickets to Rising Pune Supergiant in their Indian Premier League (IPL) season opener. The two-time champions had lost their first match in the IPL every year, starting from 2013, and it was no different this season either, as the Mumbai outfit came under some pounding from Steve Smith.
Smith's love affair with Pune continued as he played an innings oozing with imperiousness, much the same way that he had struck a classy Test century not too long ago, at the very same ground, on a much difficult pitch. The Pune captain is in the form of his life and acknowledged after the match that he enjoyed batting in Pune.
What Mumbai had to do, as their captain Rohit Sharma acknowledged, was to get Smith early, which they could not, owing to some sloppiness on the field. Mumbai are really making it a habit of losing their season opener in the IPL, and they had only themselves to blame for the 2017 IPL opener loss.
Nitesh Rana dropped Smith when he was on 36 and what a costly mistake it turned out to be. With 72 needed from seven overs, the in-form Smith's wicket at that stage would have been a huge boost for Rohit Sharma's side. To make matters worse, Tim Southee dropped an absolute sitter with just seven balls remaining, the beneficiary of Mumbai's profligacy this time being Mahendra Singh Dhoni. You do not give players like Smith and Dhoni a second chance, Mumbai did and paid the price for being callous on the field.
Mumbai's team selection also has to be called into question. One a night when they could not defend a substantial score of 184, their bowling looked a bit short on quality. Tim Southee and Hardik Pandya looked average, and Jasprit Bumrah – otherwise known for his 'death' bowling – and Mitchell McClenaghan could not do much either.
Mumbai chose to go with McClenaghan instead of the more illustrious Mitchell Johnson, whom they had bought in the February auctions for Rs 2 crore. However, McClenaghan has done well for Mumbai in the past, being the highest wicket-taker of IPL 2016, with 17 scalps from 12 matches, and as Rohit pointed out after the match, the team management put their faith in the New Zealand pacer.
The omission of Harbhajan Singh was, however, extremely surprising. Granted that Harbhajan has left his best days far behind, and doesn't find favour with the national selectors anymore, but make no mistake, the wily old off-spinner still has enough quality in him to bowl four good overs. He's been their go-to man in crunch situations in the past. And in his absence, all that Mumbai was left with in terms of spin was Krunal Pandya's slow left-arm orthodox that didn't really threaten anyone. Pune's South African recruit Imran Tahir showed that spin was an extremely potent weapon in this match, and one feels Mumbai missed a trick by excluding Harbhajan from the starting eleven.
Lasith Malinga would make an enormous difference to the Mumbai bowling attack when he returns from national duty, and one imagines he will walk straight in place of Southee in the starting line-up. He gave the Mumbai fans a lot of hope with his performance against Bangladesh in the second T20I of the series at Colombo on Thursday, which saw him claim a hat-trick.
But does the overlooking of Harbhajan mean that Mumbai are starting to feel that the Punjab tweaker has outlived his utility in the side? Harbhajan has been a part of the franchise setup right since its inception and has been one of the most consistent performers. However, in the cruel and highly competitive world of franchise-based cricket, there is no room for emotions. But even from a practical point of view, Harbhajan can't be sidelined yet, for what he can do, apart from giving you four quality overs of off-spin, is that he can hit the ball long. Also being one of the senior-most members of the side, he could have provided some invaluable guidance to the youngsters.
It could well have been, however, that Mumbai's decision to drop Harbhajan was a strategic one. But even if it were so, it was a an error. What Mumbai could have done, even while retaining one of their top performers from last year, Krunal Pandya, was to have Harbhajan instead of Rana. Mumbai looked a bowler short on a pitch that was good to bat on, and ended up having Kieron Pollard bowling his gentle medium pacers in the last over of the match. Pune needed 13 runs off the last over, and Smith and Dhoni rattled the runs off.
Perhaps Rohit could have saved McClenaghan for the last over, but the demand of the situation may have been that McClenaghan be bowled out, and that's where Mumbai missed an extra bowler.
Earlier, Mumbai started their innings on the front foot with Parthiv Patel and Jos Buttler going great guns. The two consecutive sixes by Buttler off Ben Stokes made Mumbai's intent amply clear and they raced away to 61/1 in the first six overs. Tahir, who surprisingly went unsold in the auctions and could only play this season due to Mitchell Marsh pulling out with an injury, made serious dents to the Mumbai batting by sending back Rohit and Buttler, to go with Parthiv's wicket earlier, and could well have had Pollard leg before wicket but for umpire's blunder.
In the end, it was some manic hitting by Hardik Pandya in the last over of the Mumbai innings that propelled them to a total that didn't seem likely at one stage. Mumbai were 154/7 after 19 overs, but some wayward bowling by Pune's Ashok Dinda allowed Pandya to take full toll. That Dinda over produced 30 runs, including four sixes and a four, and from looking like ending with an average total, Mumbai suddenly had a lot to play with.
Mumbai, however, may want to reconsider that batting order that they went with in this match. It was bit of a surprise to see Rohit not coming out to open, as were the decision to hold back a power-hitter like Pollard.
Pune then made a dash for the target, with Ajinkya Rahane and Steve Smith putting up a strong partnership, Rahane bringing up his fifty off 27 balls – his fastest in the IPL. In the end, Mumbai's faux pas, coupled with some top class performances by the Supergiant led to the latter's victory on the night.
Over the last few seasons, Mumbai have been hampered by their slow starts. They need to tighten up their game big time if they are to bounce back in the tournament. They play Kolkata Knight Riders – a team they have traditionally done well against – in their next match on Sunday. Rohit and his men would hope to put up a much better show against the Kolkata brigade. Mumbai would do well to not leave everything for the eleventh hour. It worked for them in 2015, it would not every time.