IPL 2021: Clinical Mumbai Indians find solution to peculiar Chennai challenge

If you didn’t already know, the first week of IPL 2021 provided ample explanation why Chennai Super Kings enjoyed domination at home over the past years. A slower surface, wherein batsmen find it tough to get the ball away and bowlers enjoy holding a say in T20 proceedings, CSK had turned Chepauk into a near-fortress.

It is also an explainer why teams have struggled to come to terms with conditions here. The pandemic has thrown massive curve balls at the IPL —these teams weren’t picked or designed to play in UAE in 2020, nor forego home advantage in 2021. But here we are, tested by COVID-19 realities, and the IPL is no stranger to this situation. And so, teams have had to adapt to Chennai’s peculiar T20 conditions. Most of them haven’t been able to do so.

Take, for example, Kolkata Knight Riders, a team built primarily around pace strengths to cater to Eden Gardens. They hit the reset button and brought in experienced spinners — Shakib al Hasan and Harbhajan Singh — for this season, but look how they messed up things this past week. Sunrisers Hyderabad have been bamboozled, losing all three matches at Chennai, unable to make head or tails of the situation.

Surprisingly, Royal Challengers Bangalore have enjoyed their opening games here. Unsurprisingly thereafter, Mumbai Indians too have come to the party. Looking across the board, two wins in three games and a very close defeat (to RCB), one would even say Mumbai have found a solution to this Chennai challenge. It is in the word consistency, their unofficial mantra.

Even as other teams have fiddled around to find the best possible combination for Chennai’s slower conditions, Mumbai Indians have stuck to their guns. They are not a spin-first IPL franchise, primarily because of Wankhede’s batting-friendly conditions. Two spinners and three pacers (plus Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya, when available to bowl) is their optimal strategy.

It was surprising to see them follow the same path in UAE last season. Those pitches weren’t as slow, yet a tweak was perhaps needed. Mumbai Indians ignored this situational demand and ploughed their way to a fifth IPL title. So, why would they change things around this time around? It is like Rohit Sharma said at the beginning of the tournament – they don’t need to change much from the team that won the final last November.

This facet is an awe-inspiring one. Imagine being in Rohit’s shoes, able to call in Jasprit Bumrah and Trent Boult for the finish. Key to their bowling plans has been the performance of other three bowlers, especially the two spinners. In that light, Rahul Chahar has come into his own, on these spin-friendly conditions. The win against KKR was built on the back of his spell, and even on Saturday night, he had the Sunrisers batting line-up in a fix, finishing with a spell of 3/19.

Chahar’s ability to vary his pace, whilst turning the ball both ways, has been key to his success. It is in contrast to what Rashid Khan does, skidding his leg-breaks and googlies. Batsmen can comprehend that strategy – pace on a slow Chennai wicket is always beneficial and Mumbai used this to great effect on Saturday night. Rashid went wicket-less, while Chahar went joint-top of the wicket-taker’s list.

In doing so, Chahar has potentially unlocked the blueprint of picking up wickets in Chennai and indeed charting a course to win. In fact, his success is but a microcosm of the greater Mumbai strategy of handling these unfriendly T20 conditions. After what happened in the past couple of games, it was obvious that winning the toss and opting to bat was crucial. Mumbai made the smart move when presented the chance.

There onwards, their plan was simple. Bat slow, bat long, and the batsman who stays longer at the crease, holds up one end for as long as possible. The first bit worked in the opening partnership worth 55 runs between Rohit and Quinton de Kock. It came off 51 balls – they would get a lot more runs facing that many deliveries on any other IPL pitch in this country, or overseas for that matter. Yet, it underlined the first step of their batting plan.

As the ball went soft, batting got progressively harder. Rohit’s dismissal brought in Suryakumar Yadav and together with de Kock, they tried to force the pace. At 98/3, the struggle was very real. Enter Pollard, and his 22-ball 35-run knock proved pivotal in Mumbai’s plans to build around set batsmen and hit the 150-threshold. Mind you, they had only reached 133/5 after 19 overs, and it was Pollard’s two sixes off the last two balls that shifted momentum a tad.

Nobody told Jonny Bairstow though, who came out to bat as if in anger at being denied the opening role for so long. Smashing his way to 43 off 22 balls, including four sixes, it was apparent why Sunrisers Hyderabad had made so many changes to their playing line-up. Realising the slow nature of Chennai’s track, they wanted Bairstow to go hard at the bowling from the go and use the fresh, hard white ball to good effect.

However, in doing so, Hyderabad upset their team balance, which has been their Achilles heel for a long while now. And they made a peculiar selection call again, leaving out Kedar Jadhav and instead packing their middle order with inexperience. Jadhav could have given them an extra slow-bowling option, whilst anchoring the middle order, a role he is better suited to than, say, Virat Singh or Abhishek Sharma.

This turns back the narrative to Mumbai, again. Their set methods and plans work because they have found optimal candidates through years of proper selection, harbouring talent and investing time in their abilities. No team, on current form or past wins, has been as clinical as Mumbai Indians. Maybe, it helps being the richest franchise in the competition, but money cannot buy you wins. It can only get you the rights tools.

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