IPL 2017: MI's bench shines bright against KKR, presents problem of plenty ahead of playoffs

After a couple of hiccups in the last stretch of the group stage, Mumbai Indians (MI) ensured they got back their winning habit before facing the acid test that is the playoffs.

With their narrow win over Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) at the Eden Gardens, they killed several birds with a single stone — from gaining confidence and testing out their bench strength to ensuring that they got two shots at making it to the summit clash.

 IPL 2017: MIs bench shines bright against KKR, presents problem of plenty ahead of playoffs

Mitchell Johnson of Mumbai Indians celebrates wicket of Gautam Gambhir with teammates. Sportzpics

The clash between the two top dogs of the ongoing league, with KKR making room for themselves at the top of the table for some time before MI overtook them, was expected to be a tough one. Additionally, the hosts were desperate to halt a sudden slide in their campaign that had seen them lose three of their last four matches.

While the result of Match 54 effectively puts Kolkata out of the top two, with Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) sitting ahead of them by a point, Mumbai ensured that they carried the mental advantage into the knockouts with their top-of-the-table finish.

After a delayed toss due to showers earlier in the evening (a washout would certainly have made things a little more interesting), Mumbai were put in to bat by home team skipper Gautam Gambhir, with the Knight Riders enjoying a formidable reputation of chasing on home turf.

The real surprise at the start of the innings though, was the massive chopping-and-changing in the Mumbai team, with the team management deciding to make as many as six changes to the side that had suffered a narrow loss to Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) in a high-scoring encounter on Thursday. It was something of an overhaul on the part of table-toppers, and it indicated a relaxed mindset in the camp as well as the immense faith that some of the seniors had in the bench-warmers.

The fact that the team overhaul for this game, which would have come under scrutiny had it failed, worked so wonderfully in the team's favour, with the likes of Ambati Rayudu and Saurabh Tiwary rising to the occasion, is a sign of the intent among the individuals in the side to take centre stage whenever the opportunity presents itself.

A highlight of Mumbai's campaign so far has been their non-reliance on a single person to get them past the finish line on most occasions, with most members of the squad having some say or another in the 10 victories that have come by in the season so far.

The success of the bench in this game, especially the return of Rayudu to fluency with bat after sitting out for most of the season, creates a problem of plenty for Mumbai heading to the playoffs, something that the team management wouldn't entirely mind.

Rayudu displayed a fearless approach at the crease on Saturday evening as well as a sense of application, taking his time to adjust at the crease before hammering his way to his 14th half-century in the league. It remains to be seen whether Mumbai take a cue from this performance, and reshuffle their top and middle-order to resemble the one used on Saturday evening at the Eden, with the sole replacement of Saurabh with Parthiv Patel. That is something that either time or Rohit Sharma at a press conference will be able to tell.

Another positive from the game was Hardik Pandya's brilliance with the ball as the younger Pandya sibling finishing with figures of 2/22 with a miserly economy of 5.50. Hardik, who burst into the scene with a successful outing in the IPL in 2014 before going lukewarm last year, has been in fine touch this year, and is expected to be a vital cog in Mumbai's plans in the crucial encounters ahead.

Another positive from Saturday evening's events was the death bowling of Mitchell Johnson, who went for runs at the start of the innings but bowled a tight 16th over, not allowing either Manish Pandey or Kuldeep Yadav to swing their arms to get to the fence. While the likes of Mitchell McClenaghan and Jasprit Bumrah have been the main wicket-takers for Rohit and Co, Lasith Malinga has not been at his best this year. Johnson hasn't been as erratic as the Sri Lankan pacer in the three chances that he has got in the tournament so far, and the team think-tank could possibly look towards him as an option for tightening the screws on the opposition run-rate.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the evening was that of Rohit not getting to a massive score at his favourite hunting ground. He got off to a cracking start, racing to 27 off 20 balls, before getting foxed by an off-cutter from Ankit Rajpoot to get trapped lbw. Perhaps the team victory and the consequent finish on top made up for it.

If not Eden, Rohit might as well think of getting that big score at their home ground of the Wankhede, where they face their next opponent in the first qualifier. Maybe his century might come in handier there.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2017 12:37:01 IST