Gone are the days when the experts would describe Mumbai Indians as the side that deserved to lift the trophy, but somehow fell short of the finish line by a step.
Come 9 April, the Mumbai Indians team will enter their ‘fortress’ of Wankhede Stadium in their opening fixture against the MS Dhoni-led Rising Pune SuperGiants (RPSG) as two-time champions looking to become the first side in the tournament history to win it for a third time.
Captain Rohit Sharma, who has led the side in the last three editions, including their victorious campaigns in 2013 and 2015, is confident in every way of his side successfully defending their title. And he has many a reason for believing so.
Whether it is their powerful batting line-up, a bowling attack that still has the teeth to maul the opposition, or the enviable ensemble of coach and support staff, Mumbai Indians have what it takes to lift the trophy.
Mumbai have been among the most consistent sides in the tournament’s history, and also have the biggest brand value alongside Kolkata Knight Riders.
After a disappointing outing in the first couple of seasons, skipper and Indian batting legend Sachin Tendulkar led from the front and also dazzled with the bat in his usual style as his team finished as runners-up in the 2010 edition, a major leap for the side. The ‘Paltans’ since then have made it to the play-offs, at least, in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Talking about their batting line-up, Rohit has insisted that he would like to open the innings for his side. He has scored 70 percent of his runs in the league at the top of the order but has had a mixed run in recent T20 internationals.
He had two fifties in the T20I series against Australia, smashed an exhilarating 83 against Bangladesh in the opening game of the Asia Cup, and had a slump in form thereafter right till the semi-final of the World T20, where he hit a quickfire 43 against West Indies.
In a recent press conference in Mumbai, Rohit stated that he would like to open the innings for his side for the first few games, and the powers that be would then decide whether to continue with the combination.
“I would like to open, at least in the initial games. We will see where we stand after the first few games. A lot depends on what sort of balance we need.
“As captain, it’s my responsibility to go on to the field with the right combination. I would prefer to start opening the innings initially, but we will see where I stand and will take it from there,” Rohit said in the curtain-raiser event for Mumbai Indians recently.
The captain’s inclination towards opening the innings means that either of Lendl Simmons and Parthiv Patel, the opening partnership which was highly successful in the second half of last year’s edition, will have to be tinkered with.
Simmons was not part of the original West Indies squad for the ICC World T20, but in an interesting twist of fate, was called up to replace the injured Andre Fletcher at the fag end of the tournament. His 82 off 51 balls in the crunch semi-final match against India at his home away from home, proved crucial in the Caribbean side's title charge. Coupled with the fact that he was among the top three run-scorers last season, Simmons is the favourite to walk out to bat alongside Rohit at the start of the innings when IPL action gets underway on Saturday.
Kieron Pollard has not played much in recent times, having last featured in South Africa’s Ram Slam T20 league before pulling out of the World T20.
However, he will look forward to demolishing the opposition attacks while batting in the Mumbai middle-order along with the likes of Ambati Rayudu and New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson, whose 44-ball 95 against Rajasthan Royals that helped his side miraculously qualify for the playoffs is still vivid in fans’ minds.
While Mumbai may regret releasing New Zealand batsman Colin Munro, who smashed the fastest T20I fifty recently, they made up for it with Jos Butter’s purchase for a sum of Rs 3.8 crore, which turned out to be one of the smartest in the IPL auctions in February.
The form that the England wicketkeeper-batsman, who is a limited-overs specialist for his side, displayed in T20Is in South Africa and in the World T20 makes the Mumbai side even more lethal. His presence will make the work for Pollard and co. in the middle-order easier. However, it might not come as good news for Parthiv, who would then further lose his relevance in the side.
The bowling department might miss the pace spearhead Lasith Malinga, who is yet to recover from his knee injury that kept him out of the World T20. Malinga has been one of the team’s core weapons since 2009, and he lost out to Chennai Super Kings’ Dwayne Bravo in the race for the Purple Cap by a couple of wickets last season.
While the team awaits his fitness news, Rohit will have to rely on New Zealand pacemen Mitchell McClenaghan and the newly-purchased Tim Southee, South African Marchant de Lange, R Vinay Kumar along with home-grown talent Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya, both of whom have been Mumbai's great contribution to Indian cricket in recent times.
Attention will also be on Nathu Singh, who is known to clock speeds of more than 140 kmph in the domestic circuit, and could be a potential speedster for India in the coming days.
While they may not have as many all-rounders as say a side like Kolkata Knight Riders, Mumabi can boast of Anderson and Pandya in their ranks. While Pandya still has a long way to go in the international scene, he had a good season both with bat and ball for Mumbai last year.
Veteran off-spinner Harbhajan Singh may not have found a place in the Indian side in recent tournaments, but his experience will be a guiding force for the bowlers, and his on-field presence adds to the strength of the defending champions. While it remains to be seen how match-ready he is ahead of Saturday’s game, ‘Bhajji’ will eventually want to make an impact if he is to pitch his case to the national selectors later.
Much like Bumrah and Pandya last year, Mumbai will look to unearth a couple of stars this season as well from the lot of Krunal Pandya (Hardik’s brother), Kishore Kamath, Nitish Rana, Deepak Punia, etc. Players such as Shreyas Gopal, Siddhesh Lad will hope to utilise this platform to try and break into the national team.
Mumbai possess a dream coaching staff comprising of head coach Ricky Ponting, fielding coach Jonty Rhodes and bowling coach Shane Bond. Ponting’s maiden stint as the team’s coach in last year’s edition paid its dividends as Mumbai Indians lifted its second trophy, and the two-time World Cup-winning Australian captain has expressed his desire to unearth another Hardik this season.
"It will be great, like we did last year, to unearth another Hardik Pandya. That's also what I feel my job is as MI coach is, to try and bring out these younger guys as quickly as we can,” Ponting was quoted as saying at a recent event.
The one thing that Rohit has insisted doing differently this season is getting off to a good start. In the last two editions, Mumbai Indians were down and out in the first half of the league stage before producing a dramatic turnaround to qualify for the final four.
“In the last couple of years, we haven’t started very well. We don’t want to do so this year. It will be important to get some wins on the board at the start of the tournament and carry that momentum forward,” Rohit said.
Batting definitely will be key to Mumbai’s performances in the tournament. Mumbai have one of the strongest batting line-ups among the franchises, and it was also a major factor in their successful campaign last season.
Veteran pacer Malinga’s absence might not take the teeth out of the Mumbai attack so to speak, but the presence of the league’s all-time leading wicket-taker would have given a sense of direction to the team’s bowling attack. In his absence, the question over the new leader of the lot persists, especially as new-buy Southee might take his time to settle into the side.
Jos Buttler. He has proved himself as someone who can flourish in the death overs for England, and he now has to prove his money’s worth for the Mumbai Indians.
Mumbai Indians full squad for IPL 2016: Rohit Sharma (c), Harbhajan Singh, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Jos Buttler, Kieron Pollard, Corey Anderson, Lasith Malinga, Lendl Simmons, Mitchell McClenaghan, Marchant de Lange, Tim Southee, Unmukt Chand, Vinay Kumar, Parthiv Patel, Shreyas Gopal, Nathu Singh, J Suchith, Ambati Rayudu, Akshay Wakhare, Deepak Punia, Jitesh Sharma, Kishore Kamath, Krunal Pandya, Nitish Rana, Siddhesh Lad.