It’s not the first time quintuple Indian Premier League (IPL) champions Mumbai Indians (MI) have sneaked into the playoffs. The most dramatic entry was in 2014 when they lost their first five games and then had to beat Rajasthan Royals (RR) by a huge margin in their last game to make it. The Rohit Sharma-led team has done it again this time.
They chased down a target of 201 against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) on Sunday and then watched with bated breath as Gujarat Titans (GT) beat Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the last league game. Had RCB won, they would have finished above MI on net run rate.
MI’s feat in qualifying for the eliminator against Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) on Wednesday is another come-from-behind story, but this one is special for its brains and guts. That’s because a muddled auction strategy and injuries had left the skipper with a heavily depleted bowling attack.
Last year’s decision to splurge INR 8 crore on an injured Jofra Archer, despite his unavailability for the 2022 season, was a big risk. Visions of seeing Archer and Jasprit Bumrah bowl in tandem in 2023 evaporated when Bumrah got ruled out with a back injury. Matters got worse when Archer went through the motions without going flat out and eventually pulled out midway.
The spin department was equally iffy in the hands of a leg-spinner past his prime, Piyush Chawla, and two inexperienced spinners, Kumar Kartikeya and Hrithik Shokeen. Too much money had been blown up on the pace bowlers and batsmen to afford a top-rated spinner at the auction.
But one of the reasons why Rohit Sharma is the most successful IPL captain to date is his knack for getting the most out of whatever resources he has at hand. Chawla got the sort of captain a leg-spinner needs to be fearless and had his best season ever with 20 wickets.
Pace bowler Akash Madhwal from Uttarakhand made his IPL debut mid-season and has emerged as a yorker exponent in the death overs within six games. He went at 12 an over in his debut game on May 3 and took only one wicket in his first three matches, but Sharma saw something in him and persisted.
It paid off in Madhwal’s fourth game on May 12 when his 3/31 against GT, including the key wickets of Shubman Gill and David Miller, helped MI topple the table-toppers. He followed that up with a match-winning haul of four wickets in MI’s do-or-die final league game against SRH on Sunday.
Now the team looks settled in its run to the final as its big guns have started firing, with Cameron Green scoring a century and Sharma himself getting a 50 at long last. The catch is that Wednesday’s eliminator is at the Chepauk in Chennai, whereas MI’s tall scores have mostly come at the Wankhede in Mumbai. They scored a paltry 139 in their only game in Chennai on May 6 against Chennai Super Kings (CSK).
MI’s opponents in the eliminator, LSG, also lost to CSK in Chennai on April 3. But that was a high-scoring game in which both teams scored over 200. And LSG won half of their games on a tacky wicket at their home venue of Lucknow. So, if the Chepauk wicket turns out to be lower, slower, and spin-friendlier than the Wankhede, it may slightly favour LSG over MI.
Like MI, LSG surmounted body blows to be in the playoffs, under the astute guidance of coach Andy Flower and mentor Gautam Gambhir. The first blow was Mark Wood getting a flu after making a sensational start on April 1 when he blasted out 5 Delhi Capitals batsmen for 14 runs. The England speedster later returned home for the birth of his child.
After trying out replacements like Jaydev Unadkat who proved expensive, LSG brought in Naveen-ul Haq, whom they had acquired at his base price of INR 50 lakh at this year’s auction. The young Afghanistan pacer has proved highly effective with his slower ball variations, control, and composure under pressure. His economy rate of 7.5 and seven wickets in seven games played a part in LSG qualifying for the playoffs. The gambit of dropping a hard-hitting overseas batsman, Kyle Mayers, to accommodate Naveen-ul Haq worked.
Another trump card played by LSG is the tall left-arm speedster from Uttar Pradesh, Mohsin Khan. He made a big impression last season when he took 14 wickets in 9 games at an economy rate of just 6. But then a shoulder injury almost ended his career. After a long rehabilitation, he came into IPL 2023 with hardly any match practice.
In his first comeback game on May 7, he conceded 42 runs in 3 overs in a drubbing by GT. But LSG not only persisted with him but gambled by giving him the last over to defend 10 runs against MI big-hitters Cameron Green and Tim David. Khan regained his 2022 mojo just in time to concede only 5 runs in a sensational finale in Lucknow on May 16, which put LSG over MI in the league table.
"I really want to thank Gautam Gambhir sir and the LSG team for keeping faith in me. I didn't perform well in the last game, but they trusted me," Khan said in an emotional post-match interview.
LSG are also dealing with their skipper and opener, KL Rahul, dropping out with a hamstring injury. His deputy, Krunal Pandya, is proving to be a smart captain. But the team is yet to figure out an effective opening combination without being forced to play two overseas batsmen at the top and sacrificing Naveen-ul Haq.
Thus the eliminator on 24 May will be a test of tactics in a clash between two well-led franchises who are both coping with the absence of some top guns.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org