Most teams have a bogey opponent, who mysteriously makes them play below their standards and invariably beats them. When Mumbai Indians landed at Jaipur on Saturday, Rajasthan Royals was already turning into a legit bogey team after defeats in their previous three encounters. With the hosts languishing at the bottom of the table with not too many games to go before the playoffs, the bogey team had nothing to lose and was even more dangerous.
Steve Smith said at the toss that the pitch appeared hard to read, but with stripes of dry and grassy areas on the surface, it was always going to be tricky to bat on. We have seen a lot of slow surfaces this season where the default T20 mode of going hard at the ball from ball one to ball 120 doesn't pay much dividend.
On a slow surface, the key to batting is to try and get as many as possible when the ball is hard and coming on to the bat. It's often harder for a new man coming in to get used to the pace, so you need a set batsman in the middle. While playing aggressive strokes, you need to keep your shape because the ball may stop on you. If you go too hard at the ball, there is more chance of missing it altogether or skying it up for a catch.
Mumbai got part one right when they started well with Rohit Sharma and Quinton de Kock, and later built a sizeable partnership with Suryakumar Yadav and de Kock. But as the ball started getting older, the innings began to fall apart.
Rajasthan seam bowlers were hitting the pitch hard to get variable bounce from the surface. De Kock's pull shots that were rocketing off the bat against the new ball were not being as productive. One could sense that the batsman was getting frustrated and itching to explode.
In the 10th over, he attempted a pull shot against Dhawal Kulkarni that sneaked under his bat. The next ball, he played a delicate lap shot to fine leg and collected a boundary. He should have known that finesse, not brute force is the answer to the puzzle of this pitch.
Two overs later, he missed another pull shot, but was able to send the ball out of the park when Unadkat pitched it up. Rajasthan learnt the lesson quickly, and everything after that was either short of the length or off-pace.
Stuart Binny bowled five slower deliveries on the trot in the 14th over. Suryakumar, even though he was well set was able to time only one of them and eventually lost his wicket to another miscued pull shot. One wasn't keeping count, but Mumbai batsmen must have miscued or missed at least ten pull shots in the second half of their innings.
IPL teams expect their overseas players to take more responsibility. As a senior international pro, de Kock needed to read the pitch condition, oppositions strategy and match situation better. Mumbai needed a set batsman in the middle to guide them after the fall of Suryakumar. But four balls later, de Kock heaved one against Shreyas Gopal, the pick of Rajasthan's bowler so far in the innings and gave a simple catch to Ben Stokes in the deep.
Mumbai now had two men with no runs against their name in the middle. Even though their names were Keiron Pollard and Hardik Pandya, it would take them some time to get used to the pace of the pitch and calibrate their timing. If these two play a majority of the death overs, Mumbai usually scores a mountain of runs to post a match-winning total.
Against CSK at home earlier this season, these two got 68 runs in a little over three overs at the death. At Jaipur, Mumbai got 49 runs in 5.3 overs with Pollard and Hardik at the crease. Decent return, but not a match-winning one. It could have been a different story if de Kock had stayed around for a couple more overs before going for the risky big hit. Twenty more runs on this pitch at the end could have been decisive. As it turned out, Mumbai got 81-1 in the first ten overs and 80-4 in the last ten.
When Rajasthan batted, they gave an exhibition of the template for this pitch. Runs against the new ball from Sanju Samson who caressed and carved the ball on the slow pitch without over-hitting it set them up. Smith found another gear as he started with a flurry of boundaries, but when a set Samson got out, he settled down to anchor the innings and allowed Riyan Parag to take more risks.
Mumbai bowlers were also guilty of bowling at the same pace and a tad too full for the surface. While the pitch had also eased up with a bit of dew on the surface, Rajasthan's methodical approach clearly gave them the edge in Saturday's encounter.
After Delhi's win later in the night, Mumbai are tied with them at the second place with 12 points. With playoffs on the horizon, it could be a tough fight between five teams for three spots. To feel secure, Mumbai need to win at least two off their next games to reach 16 points. But ideally, they would like to win more and ensure a top two finish for an easier road to the finals.