A team such as Mumbai Indians is not a stranger to must-win games. Mostly they come at the fag end of any IPL season, either for final-four qualifications or in the knockouts themselves. But 2021 being what it is, this was probably one of those rare occasions when that first must-win game of the tournament arrived early.
That would be the simplest context for the IPL’s El Clasico. A contest between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings is always about bragging rights, irrespective of the tournament’s stage. This time around though, there were also additional riders. Coming up against a high-flying CSK, who seem to have recovered their mojo, Mumbai had problems aplenty and most of them emanated from playing in Chennai.
This game sat almost at the mid-point of IPL 2021, wherein the table seemed to be getting divided into two groups. CSK, Delhi Capitals and Royal Challengers Bangalore seemed to be pulling away with 10 points each, while the bottom four were clubbed together. Mumbai, before Saturday night, sat at 6 points — caught between the two, and it was imperative for them to catch up to the top half, lest one of the bottom four break away. Especially with Punjab Kings winning against RCB and getting to six points themselves.
Chasing 219 in a must-win game, however, is no easy task.
For much of the tournament, CSK have worked as a sum of individual parts. From Ruturaj Gaikwad to Faf du Plessis to Ravindra Jadeja to Moeen Ali and to Sam Curran, a majority of their games saw individual performances tide over the team’s shortcomings. As they started gaining momentum, and the current team formula started working, a collective performance is emanating from the CSK camp. Saturday’s game was perhaps a microcosm of that facet — this is a team very much in-form, and has almost regained that old CSK swagger.
It was seen in the manner Ambati Rayudu tore through the Mumbai attack and took them across the 200-mark. It was some of the cleanest hitting at the Feroz Shah Kotla, and deserved an audience. In fact, the whole setting of this particular game deserved an in-house crowd, but for the disaster unfolding outside the stadium’s walls. Even as we try to stay locked in, and numb our minds whilst praying for those suffering, a spectacle put on by the likes of Rayudu and his teammates provides momentary distraction.
Rayudu has a habit of getting upstaged — maybe it is down to luck, given how his career chart has traversed. What else can you attribute it to after smacking 72 off 27 balls, including seven sixes? Kotla’s short boundaries — and a much-improved batting wicket — allow for such a score to be chased down. Even then, you need someone to get the job done, and Rayudu, in big-hitting terms, is not comparable to Kieron Pollard.
Eight sixes and six fours, 34 balls, 87 runs — Pollard went that one step further than Rayudu and nearly single-handedly chased down that tall score for Mumbai. It was a worthy reminder of the burly West Indian’s T20 prowess, almost turning back time to 2009 when he had first made an appearance on the world stage in the now-defunct Champions League T20. A lot has changed since — Pollard has become of the top T20 players in the world, plying his trade across the world, leading West Indies in this format and even his waistline seems to have grown. His hitting ability is unchanged, though.
That last bit matters most because this has been a stop and start season for Mumbai Indians until now. They are one of the only two sides to have played five games in the Chennai leg of the IPL 2021, and both have suffered due to those slow, low-scoring conditions. Sunrisers Hyderabad, for instance, have had to change tack mid-season to salvage something and in a shocking move, had to dethrone their iconic skipper David Warner.
Mumbai Indians didn’t suffer the same fate because they have better quality in their squad. Even if they etched only one more win than Sunrisers in Chennai, Mumbai managed to stay afloat by forcing the contests into near-stalemates and taking the game deep every time. Their run-rate didn’t suffer too much and they stayed within touching distance of the top-four. Then, arriving in Delhi, they changed formation in better batting conditions and looked to firm up that middle-order.
It is only a squad rich in depth such as Mumbai Indians that can afford to drop their leading run-scorer from the previous season on the bench. Ishan Kishan seems to have taken the fall for Mumbai’s poor return from the Chennai leg, but they can afford to give him some rest as they fiddle around with combinations catering to different situations and conditions in this unique IPL season. For example, ever since landing in Delhi, Mumbai have featured seven bowling options each game – five full-time bowlers and two all-round/part-time options, not including Hardik Pandya.
With Hardik playing as a pure batsman, but lower down the order, there was no place for Kishan in the side and the team management has found a new balance, like only Mumbai can. This is where Pollard’s knock assumes greater significance. In Chennai, the onus was on top-order batsmen to score the bulk of runs and use the powerplay overs to good effect. Batting inadvertently became difficult in the second half of the innings, and Mumbai’s big-hitting middle order struggled, simply put.
Mumbai Indians have never been reliant on one batsman, not even on their talisman Rohit Sharma. Even so, their middle order was the driving engine of that batting line-up. With a set platform, the likes of Pollard and the Pandya brothers could simply launch into the opposition. That element went missing in Chennai, and Pollard’s knock has got their juices flowing again.
In that wholesome context, Saturday’s win could eventually act as the catalyst for another winning run from Mumbai Indians in this IPL season.
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The CPL is scheduled to get underway from 28 August with the final to be played on 19 September, while the remaining part of IPL is likely to be held from 18 September to 10 October, not leaving the players with any time to settle down.
Currently, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly, vice-president Rajiv Shukla, acting CEO Hemang Amin, treasurer Arun Dhumal, joint secretary Jayesh George and IPL chairman Brijesh Patel are in the UAE to finalise the arrangements.
It has been reported that at least seven top players, including Steve Smith and Pat Cummins, may withdraw from West Indies and Bangladesh tours.