Mumbai Indians (MI) are one of the three Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises to have won the title twice. Both their titles were won in the last three seasons – 2013 and 2015 – but they would like to put up a better title defence this time around than they did in 2014. They have got a good squad at their disposal and in Ricky Ponting, the Indians have a coach who commands respect and knows exactly how to win titles. Rohit Sharma has been MI’s lucky charm, as it was after he took over the captaincy mantle in the sixth edition of the IPL, that the west Indian franchise bagged their first IPL crown.
Ponting, speaking at the MI press conference yesterday, said: “we are looking to improve small areas from last time and be a better team this year. It’s all about improving our players and challenge them every day.”
Speaking of improvements and challenges, what could Mumbai be confronted with during the course of this season?
The bad news for MI at the start of the season is that Lasith Malinga, the leading wicket-taker (with 143 wickets) in the history of the IPL, will be unavailable for at least the first part of this campaign. The Srilankan fast bowler has been the go-to man for Mumbai since the 2009 season, and an integral part of MI’s success in the IPL and in the Champions League. Malinga has missed games, quite a few of them, in the previous IPL seasons too because of various injuries. But the team management knew that their star man would be back playing for them soon. This season, however, the same cannot be said and as arguably their biggest challenge, MI need to cope with his absence and get the other bowlers in their squad to fill the void left by ‘slinga’ Malinga.
Malinga’s absence could actually be a blessing in disguise, courtesy of some of the big international players – both existing and newly recruited – in the MI squad for this season. It gives them that extra place to accommodate an overseas player, which would otherwise be impossible. Still, with only four overseas players eligible to play on a given day, the MI think-tank will have the tough task of keeping all their players happy.
Jos Butler (Rupees 3.8 crores) and Tim Southee (Rupees 2.5 crores) are the two new players who have joined the defending IPL champions’ roster this season. The likes of Lendl Simmons, Kieron Pollard and Mitchell McClenaghan played key roles in MI’s title-winning 2015 campaign and will hope to feature regularly for the Indians this season too. Malinga’s absence, I think, frees up a place for Southee to slot straight in. He does have a good yorker in his armoury and with the bat in his hand, the New Zealand seamer has the ability to tonk the ball a long way.
Pollard is a part of the MI core and his place in the side is a certainty. He bats at No. 4 or 5, depending on the game situation, and he can chip in with a few overs too more often than not. Corey Anderson suffered a couple of injuries on his left hand at the beginning of last campaign, in which he, therefore, played just four games before he flew back home. With the bat, he packs a punch and is no slouch with the ball in his hand either. Anderson, though, might be the one New Zealander – of the three in the MI squad – who is sacrificed and just given the odd game here and there. Simmons, Pollard and Southee are three players whose places, I think, are secure. For the fourth spot, it’s likely to be either McClenaghan or Butler.
Anyway you look at it, MI think-tank has got its task cut-out to keep the players in the squad happy and also ensure results don’t suffer. It might take them a few games to strike the right balance, but the sooner Ponting and company manage it the better. In the last couple of seasons especially, they took a lot of games to find the right combination and get going. It was a major reason in them making extremely poor starts to their 2014 and 2015 campaigns, in which they managed just one win in the first six and five games respectively.
Another challenge they will have to rise up to, is the pressure of being champions. You can be rest assured that all other teams will come hard at MI and look to grab the title from them. It’s an indigenous aspect any side that heads into a new season as the defending champions, has to contend with. And Mumbai are no exception. The absence of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals does leave the title race wide open, with MI being one of the settled and formidable outfits – along with Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) – this season. But this is T20 cricket and absolutely anything is possible. Not so long ago India, who were outright favourites to win the world T20 2016, came unstuck at the semi-final stage when none expected West Indies to upstage the Men in Blue.
MI have got many a match-winner in their squad that has the versatility to it as well. In addition to the aforementioned challenges, it is paramount for MI that their key Indian players like Ambati Rayudu (who has been with them since the 2010 season), Hardik Pandya, Parthiv Patel, to name a few, come to the party and deliver. Casting our minds back to the previous campaigns, MI have tended to be slightly over-reliant on their overseas stars. And if they have the ambition of defending their IPL title from last season, they need to perform as a team.