Two-thirds of the way into the Indian Premier League and the closeness of the contest, with respect to the qualification for the playoffs, has immensely reduced. Currently, there are five teams fighting it out for a place in the newly-constructed playoffs format with a sixth, barely surviving by the skin of their teeth.
Barring a couple of hiccups on their way, Mumbai Indians have been the team to watch. In a bid to prove that their performance in the previous edition of the tournament was no flash in the pan, the side has won eight of their ten games, becoming, in the process, the first team to qualify for the next stage.
While their strength in the batting, balance in bowling and exhilarating fielding has helped them outshine the others, there was a growing worry about the opening slot. Over the years, the way to get the best out of Sachin Tendulkar is to have someone aggressive, like Virender Sehwag, at the other end. Tendulkar has then shown the propensity to play with an uncluttered mind, getting him to score those mountains of runs.
For most part of the tournament, Tendulkar has had a cluster of opening partners. Davy Jacobs was tried and retried, James Franklin was promoted up the order and even R Satish was given the opportunity. Jacobs seemed to be hitting his straps when an injury put his chances in the tournament to rest, in turn, also freeing up a foreign player’s slot.
Aiden Blizzard fitted in, failed in his first game before blitzkrieging South African Morne Morkel. If that knock against the Delhi Daredevils was anything to go by, the Mumbai Indians seem to have covered up that one purported chink in their armour.
The other area where the Mumbai Indians have tightened up immensely has been the backup quick bowling. To have Munaf Patel bowl with an economy of 6.3 and pick up 12 wickets is one of the best ways to back the wrecker-in-chief, Lasith Malinga. Tendulkar prefers bowling Malinga with the older ball and to be able to do that, the Mumbai Indians need to exert pressure through their other bowlers at the start of the innings.
Munaf has been able to do just that.
MS Dhoni, when queried about the team’s form in the middle of the tournament, replied with his typical candour. He pointed out that it was vital not to peak too early, probably alluding to their performance in the previous IPL when a slowish start gathered so much momentum towards the end of the tournament that it had assumed the form of juggernaut.
This season, after five games, the Super Kings had more losses than wins. Six matches on, they have catapulted to the second spot with seven wins from 11 games and with a chance to join the Mumbai Indians as one of the two sides at the top of the table.
While the credit for the turnaround could go a number of players, most notably Dhoni himself, the one player who has been able to turn his own fortunes around and in turn, helped the side no ends was Albie Morkel. The Super Kings management had shown much faith in the lanky South African all-rounder, even when his own national side had refused to pick him up for the World Cup. And for good reason too – his form had fallen away in the months leading up to the tournament, badly enough for him to get the boot.
Yet, there were signs that the return to form was imminent. Before coming into the IPL, Morkel was declared the player of the year for his franchise, the Titans. The confidence, one would have thought, should have rubbed on. It did, but it took him five games to find his lost mojo. The first four had him concede more than 120 runs in the 12 overs that he sent down before he got going against the Mumbai Indians.
A four-over spell was miserly and got him a wicket too and while Chennai lost, it made for an interesting future. With Morkel continuing to hold his end up, it became much easier for Doug Bollinger to run amuck without the worry of any plumbing issues at the other end.
Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings seem the frontrunners to get to the final of the tournament, replicating what they had done last season too. In Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kolkata Knight Riders and even Rajasthan Royals, there are three teams who possess balanced side with the ability to challenge the opposition. But on a big day like the playoffs, difficult to see these top two teams go down in a hurry.