We are almost midway through the group stages of Indian Premier League’s eleventh edition. And though it might sound like a cliché, this season has been an exciting one – in that there have been more close finishes, familiar and new stars, and startling trends than most others already.
The grand old men of IPL cricket, Chennai Super Kings, are again near the top of the IPL points table. The bungling Delhi Daredevils, again, are at the bottom of the table; Gautam Gambhir’s captaincy has been offset by his poor form. The dynamic Royal Challengers Bangalore, again, are underperforming despite a power-packed batting lineup.
But the fate of three-time champs Mumbai Indians, so far, has been an eye-opener, and not the most surprising thing about the IPL.
Some would say they saw it coming. But after playing five games, Rohit Sharma’s Mumbai Indians have won just one. They have been on the wrong side of three other last-over finishes, coming out on the wrong side each time. The one time they won, against RCB, their captain Rohit enjoyed a flawless 94; the other times, he failed. If we go by usual sequence (winners in 2013, 2015 and 2017), MI is not meant to win the title this year anyway. The team is usually a slow starter, almost always beginning with more losses than wins at the beginning of every season, before playing underdog and catching up with the pack. This time, however, the problems are more ingrained.
Let us take a closer look at what is plaguing the defending champions:
The core group of players – Rohit, the Pandya brothers, Kieron Pollard and Jasprit Bumrah – have been together for many successful seasons now. While CSK has led the way in terms of playing familiarity and retaining players, MI has not been far behind in this aspect. But while the CSK group has been apart for the two banned years, MI has become a little too comfortable with their players retaining positions irrespective of their current form. Without Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan Singh, the core bunch is finding it difficult to replicate their success and cash in on their experience. A bit of shuffling might have helped, but Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, usually the bankable stars of T20 cricket, haven’t fired precisely because the challenges feel too familiar. Rohit, too, is batting as if it is almost taken for granted that Mumbai Indians will hit back in the second half of the season with spectacular come-from-behind victories.
Kieron Pollard, it has to be said, is a shadow of what he once was. The towering West Indian T20 superstar – once on the same level as Chris Gayle – hasn’t quite been able to be as consistent as Gayle in this format. Mumbai’s blind faith in him is a little baffling, given that he is solely on the team on reputation and the occasional blitzkrieg towards the end – explosions that rarely occur these days. He has been one of the most loyal players to the Mumbai Indians setup; his heydays in 2010 still remain fresh in the mind, before Gayle and Narine took over the mantle of Caribbean flair. Pollard doesn’t bowl anymore either, and he serves as a “drifter” in the middle order, who changes positions according to situations. But his struggle to finish off a solid Mumbai innings against Rajasthan Royals the other night – where he finished on a sorry 21 off 20 balls – was the reason the team failed to capitalize on an explosive partnership between Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav. His only role is to finish the innings with a flourish, and like Dhoni, he too is struggling to replicate the glory of his younger self.
It cannot be said enough that Rohit Sharma isn’t a player who should bat according to the situation of a game. He is currently at 4 – a position too low for him to flex his ODI opening muscles. He needs to open the innings if he is to face the maximum balls in the lineup; the best batsman of a team must always find a way to do so. In pursuit of boosting the middle order, Rohit has found himself coming at a position that – because of Kishan’s good form – leaves him with the responsibility to finish innings instead of pacing them. A middle order of Yadav, Kishan, Krunal Pandya, Hardik Pandya and Pollard should be enough – which is where they are perhaps missing the services of Ambati Rayadu, who is now shining for CSK at the top. Rohit’s great innings came against RCB, where he came in when his team lost two early wickets – that is, he virtually opened the innings, with plenty of time to build the innings before cutting loose towards the end. This is what he is good at. And this is what he should be doing for his IPL team, too.
Mustafizur Rahman, the young maverick Bangladeshi left-arm pacer, has lost his fizz after a stellar season in 2016 for Sunrisers. He was dropped after a weak 2017, and is now as inconsistent with the Mumbai Indians, who depend on him and McClenaghan – the overseas imports – to bolster a pace bowling lineup led by Bumrah. On paper, it looks fine. But the “Fizz” isn’t what he used to be, either for country or IPL team. He has bowled some fantastic overs this season, but has lacked the variation and wicket-taking ability that made him such a threat in Hyderabad’s winning season. As a result, a lot of pressure is now on young spinner Mayank Markande.
As previously mentioned, Mumbai is finishing on the wrong side of close results – almost always tanking towards the end of a game. They have been the best IPL team in pressure situations for years now. But they are now playing like they expect to rise from the ashes automatically after 7 games. The players look a little jaded, and with four losses out of five matches, the title looks a bridge too far this time already. In contrast, teams like Kings XI Punjab and CSK are pulling rabbits out of hats every game despite being the weaker ones on paper – finding ways to win out of hopeless situations. That is Mumbai’s trademark, on which they don’t have a copyright anymore in IPL 11.