It is Mumbai against Chennai again, this time in the IPL final. It will be heaven and it will be hell, such is the rivalry between these two IPL franchises that have dominated the tournament since its inauguration in 2008.
It was only a few nights ago that the Mumbai Indians marched into the final by thumping the mighty Super Kings on their own turf. Every team has struggled to defeat Chennai at Chepauk in the past decade, but Mumbai obliterated CSK in the qualifier by adapting and not being overwhelmed by the turning pitch. The four-wicket win was clinical and was based around meticulous planning along with masterful execution. It was a resounding victory and one that is bound to give Mumbai enormous confidence ahead of the decider on Sunday. The aspect that will please coach, Mahela Jayawardena is that his team is peaked at the right time.
After annihilating the Kolkata Knight Riders in the last league match of the season, Mumbai Indians marched into the playoffs full of confidence and belief. Mumbai finished the regular season on the top of the IPL ladder with 18 points, which included nine wins and five losses. The top two finish guaranteed the three-time champions a double chance to win the title for the unprecedented fourth time.
As has been the case in the last few seasons, Mumbai started the tournament at a snail's pace. Two losses in the first three games and the lack of impact from the spinners had resulted in Mumbai sliding to sixth on the ladder. But five wins in the next six matches catapulted them into top four and from that moment on they have always looked like certainties to qualify for the semi-finals.
A large part of Mumbai's success has come on the back of Hardik Pandya. The dynamic all-rounder has been in irresistible form with the willow. Hardik has blasted 386 runs at 48.25 with a phenomenal strike-rate of 193, second only to Andre Russell.
Importantly for Mumbai, it has been Hardik's late cameos that have resulted in the team winning at least three tightly contested matches. It all started against Royal Bangalore Challengers in the second match, a game in which Hardik crunched 32 from 14 balls in the last three overs. It would kick-start the Mumbai campaign. Then there was the 25 off 8 balls against CSK, 32 from 15 balls versus Delhi Capitals and a 16-ball 37 against RCB that allowed Mumbai to chase down 22 in two overs with five balls to spare. Hardik's late flourishes with the bat has been the key in Mumbai's victories.
Hardik has also been assisted by Kieron Pollard. The big West Indian has won two matches single-handedly. While other teams have had the beneficiary of having just one finisher the Mumbai Indians have had two. The firepower of Pollard and Hardik have demoralised the opposition. Between them, the pair have clobbered over 48 sixes and Mumbai Indians are the most proficient six hitting team in the IPL 2019.
One of the other reasons Mumbai have been so successful is their ability to win tightly contested matches. A lot of that belief is due to Jasprit Bumrah's economy during the death overs. He is arguably the best finisher with the ball and his penultimate over has won Mumbai at least two matches. The stability and the consistency of Quinton de Kock at the top of the order have also given Mumbai the luxury to lay a solid platform for the Hardik blitz at the back end of the innings.
But amongst all the success, there are still a few chinks in their armour. Rohit Sharma is still short of his best form with the MI skipper only scoring two half-centuries this seasin. His second ball duck in the qualifier is another sign of his struggles against the swinging ball. As Mumbai head to the final, Rohit needs to ensure he either drops anchor for a large proportion of the innings or provide his team a rapid start. For now, Rohit and de Kock have been guilty of playing similar roles.
The other concern for Mumbai is that a majority of their losses this season have been in high scoring matches. The benign surfaces tend to suit the Mumbai batsmen, but apart from Bumrah, no other bowler has been able to produce an economical spell. The spinners have especially struggled on pitches that offer no aid or assistance. In the matches Mumbai have lost, the spinners have combined to concede over 10 runs an over in each of the losses.
While Krunal Pandya has been outstanding on slower surfaces, he has also been taken to the cleaners on good batting pitches. Rahul Chahar has had a fantastic IPL, but like Krunal, he too has failed to keep a lid on the batsmen on placid tracks. If the pitch in Hyderabad is a batting belter, Chennai will know they can launch a calculated assault on the spinners. Also, the fact that Chahar is still raw will only put additional pressure on Krunal during the final.
The other challenge for Mumbai before the play-off was can they win if Hardik or Pollard fails to push the tempo during the death overs? Surya Kumar Yadav has had too many pretty innings of 25 and 30, but his masterful display of 71 against Chennai on Tuesday was a sign his maturity and skills. Add to that the calm and collected cameo from Ishan Kishan against the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Imran Tahir makes the batting unit even more formidable.
To be fair Mumbai are still yet to put on a clinical batting performance for the complete 20 overs. It has predominately been De Kock at the start and Pandya/Pollard at the end, but no acceleration between overs 7 – 15. Perhaps the lack of impetus during those middle overs is the reason Mumbai have struggled in the high scoring matches. It is an area they will need to improve on if the finals is a high scoring decider.
Mumbai deserve to be the favourites in the final. Their recent form and their record against Chennai this season is exemplary. The big question is how they will hold up if it is a high scoring match and are forced to chase against an experienced unit such as Chennai. But Mumbai's ability to work together and cover any blunders is the reason why they finished at the top of the ladder. They will be a difficult bunch to beat, especially with momentum on their side.