A written script couldn’t have planned this better. The four qualifiers for the playoffs also played in the league games of the last day, without the pressure of gunning for the qualification – that, they already had. However, it was a strain of a different kind, one to finish in the top two positions in the points table and in the end, it seemed to have got to two of the sides.
The on-field story of the last two week or so before the playoffs has clearly belonged to Chris Gayle. Four matches into tournament, the Royal Challengers Bangalore were sniffing for their next point in the competition. They were fortunate to get one when the weather turned inclement in the Rajasthan game before a somebody cracked upon this brilliant idea to replace an injured bowler with a batsman who had not been picked in the auction.
The brainwave worked. Out went Dirk Nanne, in came Gayle and the rest of the tournament has belonged to him and his entourage.
Make no mistake, this was the same Gayle who had flashed the dollar sign in his text message to Kevin Pietersen in the first edition of the IPL and then proceeded to play three seasons for the Knight Riders with moderate returns. This was also the same Gayle who had failed in the World Cup immediately preceding the IPL and dropped from the West Indian side in the process. And to some, this was the same Gayle, who while being hounded as a mercenary by many, has never received the support he always deserved from both, the West Indies Cricket Board and his fellow batsmen in the West Indian side.
The result was a blow-out of all that was pent-up. Gayle has cracked quick-fire cameos and the hard-hitting and big tons before, but to have done it as consistently as he has this season has had even his Bangalore skipper shaking his head in awe. Daniel Vettori was forthright in his claims that he had never seen Gayle play as well as this. Vettori is not a man to give to hyperboles and there is hardly any, if at all, evidence to prove it otherwise. Five man of the match awards in nine games leave nothing to the imagination.
The other story to create a minor ripple was the sudden turnaround of the Mumbai Indians fortunes. They had done enough in the first three-fourth of the tournament to not let the string of three losses affect their qualification but it did push them out of the top two spots. Loosely translating this, unlike Chennai or Bangalore who now need to win two of their three games to lift the trophy, the Mumbai Indians require three wins in a row to have a chance at the cup. It is a possibility, but when those three games are going to be against Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore, the probability percentage will not fill even the biggest of Mumbai fans with a lot of hope.
The root of Mumbai’s issues could be seen at the end of their first game against the Rajasthan Royals. On a pitch that was slower than most others and turned and even kicked, the much-fancied Mumbai batting struggled. The Mumbai management saw this as a deliberate ploy on the part of the home team to make it hard for their batsmen, but to be fair, the Wankhede pitch has behaved no better in the second half of the tournament. The May heat and the continuous games on the pitches across the country have had their effect and the teams will need to reorganise their strategies.
For most part of the tournament, the Mumbai Indians were able to get away with three medium-pacers, one regular spinner and the likes of Symonds and Pollard to deliver the quota of four overs reserved for the fifth bowler. Now, with the tracks slowing down, the Mumbai Indians will need to scout their squad for an extra spinner or two.
Ray Price’s inclusion was a step in the right direction and while it did not work, it may make sense to continue with him in the playing eleven. Not that it does not bring its own repercussions. His presence in the 11 will push one of the other foreign players out of the team and in all probability, it will be a batsman. For some reason, Ali Murtuza hasn’t earned his captain’s trust enough to afford him too many opportunities.
Mumbai’s issue becomes compounded by the fact that the two all-rounders that were supposed to deliver have failed to do so with the bat, but more importantly with the ball. Pollard has conceded 8.4 runs per over while Symonds has bowled only four overs and gone for 41 in the tournament. The oppositions, in the process have realised that the way to beat Mumbai Indians is to see off Lasith Malinga and wait for the backup staff to arrive.
Unfortunately for the Mumbai Indians, their next game is a knock-out match, leaving them with no option but to not make too many changes to their tactics. They would hope for Munaf Patel to take up the new ball with one of the spinners and have Malinga bowl in the middle and towards the end of the innings.
The one other problem that had been masked brilliantly by Mumbai’s winning streak was that of an opener to partner Tendulkar. Davy Jacobs, T Suman, Aiden Blizzard and even James Franklin were given a go and their existence reminds me of the Indian Test teams of 1990s when the Indian openers’ only role on the tours of Australia and South Africa was to try and get the shine off. Dime a dozen opening combinations were tried; Vikram Rathore, Sanjay Bangar, Nayan Mongia, Devang Gandhi, S Ramesh, Sameer Dighe and even VVS Laxman were only few of those names who had their stint at the top but failed to stamp any kind of authority.
Even then, the early wickets transferred the pressure onto Tendulkar at four. The only difference is that here, Tendulkar opens with the aforementioned and has had to bat against his natural instincts.
For Mumbai to be able to get to the final needs them to overcome these two issues – a fifth bowling option and runs from the opening combination. Else, the light at the end of the tunnel would continue to remain conspicuous by its absence.