Almost six months after they were originally scheduled to kick-start the 2020 Indian Premier League season at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings will take the field in the season opener tonight.
While the coronavirus pandemic threatened to cancel the tournament this year, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has managed to make the season take place.
The season will be played away from Indian shores in the United Arab Emirates and behind closed doors. While the scenery has completely changed, the teams and squads remain the same.
Many eyes will be on the defending champions Mumbai Indians as the competition's most successful side will enter the competition as favourites. The big question among the cricketing community is whether they can retain the title.
Can Mumbai Indians win their 5th title?
Apart from the unfortunate absence of Latish Malinga, the Mumbai Indians have retained the key components of their title-winning squad from last season. In addition, the franchise has also made significant additions such as Trent Boult, Chris Lynn and Sherfane Rutherford. Taking squad quality, balance and depth into account, there is barely a better side across the competition.
Moreover, the Mumbai Indians have the most important thing that any team aiming for the biggest prize needs - the winning mentality. The four-time champions simply know how to win. Even in tough and high-pressure situations, Rohit Sharma's men do not lose their composure and can grind out victories.
If one looks across the most successful teams across the globe in various sports, it's these qualities that define them. While talent, physicality and quality can be improved and purchased, building a winning habit is something that needs the most time and effort. That is a culture that the Mumbai Indians have successfully managed to create over the years.
Most importantly, they have a solid core of players like Rohit Sharma, Kieran Pollard, the Pandya brothers, Jasprit Bumrah and Mitchell McClenaghan, who have not only been part of multiple title-winning sides but are also players who know the franchise well. Furthermore, they are individuals who are comfortable playing with each other, and this makes it easy for new recruits and younger players to settle in the team.
What hindrances do they face?
While many will fancy the Mumbai Indians to defend their trophy, Rohit Sharma's team is definitely not one that is invincible by any means. There are certainly some weaknesses that could hamper their campaign, with the most obvious being their lack of spin-bowling options.
Rahul Chahar was a sensation in the Mumbai Indians' title-winning season, having taken 13 wickets at an extremely impressive economy of 6.55. However, having released Mayank Markande, there is no proven back-up wrist-spinner on the bench for the team.
Apart from young Punjabi spinner Prince Balwant, the other slow bowling options come for the Mumbai Indians in form of finger spinners like Krunal Pandya, Jayant Yadav and Ankul Roy. With the ever-increasing importance of leg-spinners in T20 cricket, this could become a cause of concern for the Mumbai Indians especially in the slow and sluggish pitches of UAE.
In fact, having known that the competition will be held in the Emirates nation, it's surprising that the Mumbai Indians did not take the opportunity to bring in another wrist-spinner as a replacement for Latish Malinga.
Whether the Mumbai Indians' tried and tested strategy of playing with three fast-bowlers and one pace-bowling all-rounder works in the UAE remains to be seen. Being able to keep their winning habit in different conditions is probably going to be the defending champions' biggest challenge. It's worth remembering that the Mumbai Indians lost all five games in the country the last time the tournament was held there in 2014.
Another small worry for the Mumbai Indians would be the match-fitness for Hardik Pandya. While all Indian players haven't stepped on the field for almost seven months, the period has been much longer for Pandya, who had surgery following the home T20 series against South Africa last September.
While he featured in the DY Patil T20 Cup in February, the all-rounder hasn't played any top-level cricket for a year. How his body reacts to playing the sport at high intensity remains to be seen.
Pandya's importance to the side cannot be understated. He has grown as one of the most important members of the team with both the bat and the bowl. Last year, his finishing abilities made the difference in multiple matches, having scored 402 runs at an incredible strike rate of 191.32.
Even as a bowler, he has quietly become an important go-to bowler for Rohit Sharma. Over the last two seasons, he has taken 32 wickets, with only Jasprit Burmah (35) having taken more wickets for the franchise in the period.
Another slight worry might come in the form of Rohit Sharma. His batting position seems to always be a topic of debate whenever the IPL is set to begin. However, it looks like the Indian vice-captain has finally settled to play as an opener at the club level too.
However, his performances in the IPL have strangely been poor by his standards, having averaged less than 30 in each of the last three seasons. While his tally of 405 runs in 2019 was respectable, he only scored 286 and 333 in the previous two years. However, it is worth noting that the 2017 and 2018 seasons saw him constantly shuffle his position in the batting order.
The Mumbai Indians certainly have some past demons to overcome. Their last three title defences have barely gone to plan. In 2014, they needed a miraculous recovery to make the playoffs. In 2016 and 2018, they only managed to finish fifth in the table.
Ultimately, when the Mumbai Indians take the field in Abu Dhabi tonight, they will be viewed as one of the favourites. The questions that remain are whether they can keep their motivation levels high after having achieved so much success and whether they can adapt to the 'new normal' in such unprecedented times.
Also see:- IPL winning tablePublished 19 Sep 2020, 19:17 IST