It seems like it was just yesterday that the prospect of Sachin Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya walking out to bat together had gripped the nation. The presence of the ever-accurate Shaun Pollock and the charismatic Harbhajan Singh added to the excitement. There was a sense of thrill, every time Mumbai Indians graced the field. The 'ala re' theme song struck the right chord with the locals. They stuttered at the start, but soon found their feet. It's been 10 years since their existence and Mumbai Indians have been one of the most consistent sides in the league. The franchise will be celebrating a decade in IPL by honouring Tendulkar, Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan who have been a part of Mumbai Indians since its inception.
After two IPL titles, one Champions League T20 crown and a runners-up place, Mumbai suffered a rare blip last season by failing to qualify for the play-offs for the first time in seven years. The lessons weren't learnt and inconsistency crept in.
Mumbai never really gained consistent momentum last season with their fate oscillating endlessly between glory, often defined as a nail-biting survival act, and defeats, where they failed to deliver in crunch moments.
Over the last few years, Mumbai have looked like that laidback kid unwilling to leave his bed until a wake-up call pushes him to do a hurried cramming session before a big exam and he somehow scraping through. They lost their first five games in 2014, before scraping into the play-offs. However, they eventually lost to Chennai Super Kings in the eliminator. The starting script remained almost the same next season, with five losses from first six games but this time they went on to clinch the title. There was nothing different to start off last season as they lost four of their first six matches but this time there was no miracle. The last-minute heroics can't click every time.
Mumbai captain Rohit Sharma is aware of the poor starts and this season, they are looking to tactically break up the long season. The scheduling might provide some much-needed help.
"Of course we would like to change it (poor starts) and go on to win the tournament,” Rohit said at a pre-tournament conference in Mumbai. "But again, it's a long tournament, you can't just look too far ahead. You have to break it into parts, look into first half, concentrate. Because our schedule in the first half is a little different from what it has been before. We play five games at home in the first 18 days. So I see that as an advantage to be playing at home,” Rohit added.
Not just the slow starts, injuries to Malinga and Lendl Simmons didn't help last season and the sudden shift of home venue to Visakhapatnam for a few matches due to the drought problem in Maharashtra hurt them the most. The transformation from flat to slow pitches didn't provide time for adjustment.
"Yes, actually it (shifting of venues) did (hurt), to be honest," Rohit said. "Because it came at that last moment. And it definitely didn't suit our game in Vizag, things didn't go our way there. The pitches didn't suit our game and probably we didn't adjust to the conditions quicker. Having said that, it's not an excuse. It was a learning curve and we now know what to expect, if a game or two get shifted, you have to be ready to perform if you are a champion side."
This season, Mumbai will be back to where they belong, playing all their seven home games at the Wankhede Stadium, in familiar conditions and amidst a vociferous crowd. As has been their tradition, they have retained the core of their squad. 20 players retained by Mumbai were the most by a franchise and they added seven players during the recent auctions. Mahela Jayawardene brings his astute mind to the table apart from the experience of playing in various T20 leagues around the world as he replaces Ricky Ponting as the head coach. Rohit is back from a long injury lay-off along with Malinga.
Heading into the 10th edition, Mumbai Indians' squad looks well balanced. The bench strength provides a strong replacement for crucial positions and players. A couple of ex-players are back in form of Mitchell Johnson and Saurabh Tiwary. Johnson played a crucial role in Perth Scorchers’ title win in the 2016/17 Big Bash League, ending up as the highest wicket-taker for the franchise. Nicholas Pooran — the hard-hitting young batsman-keeper from Trinidad, who has shown his potential at the Under-19 level as well as in the Caribbean Premier League — can play a crucial role once Jos Buttler departs for national duty on 14 May. Sri Lanka's Asela Gunaratne, who shot into limelight after his heroic performances in the T20I series in Australia, could prove to be a valuable back-up for Kieron Pollard while leg spinner Karn Sharma and off-spinner K Gowtham can be vital reinforcements in the spin department.
Batting has been Mumbai's strength over the years but during both their title wins, in 2013 and 2015, it was the pacers that played a crucial role. In 2013, Johnson ended up as joint-highest wicket-taker with Harbhajan for the Mumbai Indians, followed by Vinay Kumar and Lasith Malinga. In 2015, Malinga was the highest wicket-taker for the franchise, followed by Mitchell McClenaghan and Harbhajan. This season, with the high-profile signing of Johnson, their pace department will be the X-factor. Malinga, Jasprit Bumrah, McClenaghan, Tim Southee and Vinay Kumar make for a formidable pace battery on Wankhede wickets that might assist bounce during the early part of the season. Uncapped left-arm pacer Kulwant Khejroliya of Delhi who had a decent 2016-17 Vijay Hazare Trophy, might spring a surprise.
"We might surprise a team or two with the kind of bowling attack (we have)," Rohit said. “Anything you do at the Wankhede, the bounce will be consistent. But as the tournament goes on the pitches become slower and slower, not only at Wankhede but all over India, as it’s peak summer."
Malinga, Johnson and Rohit will be a bit rusty following long lay-offs and breaks and they will need to get into the groove as soon as possible. Harbhajan and Hardik Pandya had a forgettable tournament last year while it was Krunal Pandya, Hardik’s elder brother, who stood out with his all-round performances. The batsmen will need to up the ante. Apart from Rohit (489 runs) and Ambati Rayudu (334), none of the batsmen amassed over 300 runs in the season. And their batting averaged the least in the last four seasons — 24.89. A stable opening partnership is the need of the hour along with a fixed position for Rohit who has oscillated from middle order to opening slot according to the needs of the franchise.
Last season, there were five combinations utilised which averaged just 16.07 runs per match. Mumbai never gained the sustained momentum last season. Instead, they usually pulled off a spectacular win in one match and succumbed to shocking defeat the other.
"Last year was disappointing because we weren't consistent in what we were doing. We played one brilliant game, and then we were off for some time. If you want to win the tournament, you can't be inconsistent. It's a very fast-paced tournament. You play every second or third day, so you have to be at it all the time, not to let it go away," Rohit said.
Mumbai have covered most bases this season. They have the fire-power in their armoury. All they need to do is to veer away from the usual 'stop-start' path and maintain momentum to regain the title.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 22:19 PM