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Cricket news - Nothing so odd about 2020 for Mumbai Indians

Can Mumbai Indians successfully defend their IPL crown for the first time?

Can Mumbai Indians successfully defend their IPL crown for the first time?

Mumbai Indians don't have a good memory of playing in UAE. The last time they were there, in 2014, they had lost all their four games comprehensively -- not even coming close to winning one. But six years and three more IPL titles later, they look a more confident, competitive and complete side.

A lot has changed since then - Jasprit Bumrah has matured into one of the finest bowlers in T20 cricket, Rohit Sharma as one of the finest captains in the competition, and the discovery and the blossom of the Pandya brothers.

By 2020, they aren't even looking for alterations to defend their title. Ahead of this season, barring Nathan Coulter-Nile, who was bought at INR 8 Crore, Mumbai spent only INR 3.1 Crore for the remaining five players they bought at the auction - all at base price. It was an auction of disinterest for them. Naturally so - why fix a team when it ain't broken?

Yet, in a year of uncertainty and apprehensions, there's a lot unfamiliarity about this year's IPL as well. It has moved to a different country, in different conditions where unseen and unexpected turns await. But it wouldn't be a surprise if Mumbai Indians turn out with familiar people, combination and plans that have helped them win titles every alternate year.

None of the purchases they made, except Coulter-Nile, come in with a real chance of making it to the XI - Prince Balwant Rai, Chris Lynn, Mohsin Khan, Digvijay Deshmukh and Saurabh Tiwary. There is only one significant absentee in the contingent - Lasith Malinga -- the leading wicket-taker of the tournament and their bowling mainstay for more than a decade, who even in his wane has come up with match-winning and match-turning spells. But that's a spot which finds an able replacement through Trent Boult.

Mumbai Indians have laid out their cards bare, much like they had done last year, and yet, in consistency and execution of plans, they find few matches. Even Chennai Super Kings, who have been better at that and for longer periods of time, have come short against Rohit Sharma's men in recent times. With a similar set of players and support staff, Mumbai Indians have known their processes and drills, and that familiarity in a hastily arranged tournament should help them settle faster than the rest.

However, with pitches expected to turn slow through the course of the tournament, do Mumbai Indians really have enough strength in their spin department and scope to alter the combination that has served them well all these years? That would leave them with the only possible conundrum in the XI. Do they retain the third frontline pacer in the XI or opt to play Jayant Yadav - alongside Krunal Pandya and Rahul Chahar?

What's their best XI and why?

Rohit Sharma (c), Quinton de Kock (wk), Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Rahul Chahar, Trent Boult, Jasprit Bumrah

There is no surprise element here really. Except for Boult making it to the XI in place of Malinga, it's the same side that played the final against CSK last year. A long-serving third pacer for MI, Mitchell McClenaghan, could have a competition in the form of James Pattinson and Nathan Coulter-Nile. Or, Jayant Yadav could come in to the side as the third spinner against teams that have several left-handers in the top order.

There is enough depth and firepower in the batting. All the batters in the middle order can be used as floaters and that will aid them to counter the match-ups. The XI has been proficient in handling pressure situations and displayed the ability to make comebacks from dire positions.

The bench, however, isn't as strong, which also makes most of the players in the XI obvious choices.

Bumrah will be crucial for MI in Malinga's absence.

What works to their advantage?

There is nothing more envious about Mumbai Indians than that middle order that can do it all - Kieron Pollard and the Pandya brothers.

As batsmen, they can pummel attacks. Even if one of the three gets going, it's enough of a carnage. Pollard and Hardik had 180+ strike rates in overs 16-20 in 2019. In the recently concluded CPL, Pollard headed the list of strike rates, scoring at 204.95 while no other player managed to strike at over 150. Playing spin is their strength, and as the pitches get slower, they are going to play more important roles with the bat. Also, they can all float in the line-up.

Bowling is possibly their weakest suit. However, they can all be more than handy contributors in that department, especially Krunal Pandya. This season, Pollard could also have a role to play with his medium-pace cutters.

On the field, they are livewires. Largely boundary riders, they can cover the field well, take outrageous catches and have strong arms for throws from the deep. With long boundaries in Abu Dhabi, where they play 8 of their 14 games, they will have a significant role to play.

Amidst all that, it's also easy to forget that they have assembled, even in the absence of Malinga, among the best fast-bowling attack in this season's competition. Boult and Dhawal Kulkarni can operate with the new ball, Pattinson and McClenaghan can be the middle overs enforcers with their hard lengths, Coulter-Nile is a death overs specialist and Bumrah can bowl adeptly in each of the three phases. In addition to all this, they also have the services of Hardik Pandya.

What doesn't work to their advantage?

Playing on the flat tracks of Wankhede, Mumbai Indians haven't traditionally relied heavily on spin. However, with only three venues in UAE hosting all the matches of this year's IPL, tracks are expected to get tired faster and the reliance on spinners will be higher as the tournament progresses. In Krunal Pandya, Rahul Chahar and Jayant Yadav, they have all the bases covered but not of the highest quality. They have historically used spin as a defensive option to build up pressure in the middle stages of the innings. In Rahul Chahar (ER 6.55) and Krunal Pandya (ER 7.17), they have two very good defensive spinners while off-spinner Jayant Yadav can come into the XI against left heavy top orders.

Even their back-up resources, except for foreign pacers, are weak. Thus, if any of the other players - especially the batsmen - is injured or unavailable due to unforeseen events, they will require massive re-calibration of plans. The bench lacks experience and quality.

Malinga's withdrawal also leaves Mumbai Indians short of great options in the death overs. Coulter-Nile is one who could partner Bumrah in the death, but none of their other new ball specialists have had decent economies in the recent period in IPL - Boult (ER 10.45), McClenaghan (ER 9.26) and Kulkarni (ER 10.57).

Opportunity

For the last couple of years, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan - both elegant strokemakers - have played important parts for Mumbai Indians, and yet been overshadowed by the heroics of their more established teammates. One has been around in the Indian domestic circuit for almost a decade, while the other is a promising young talent -- neither of whom have yet reached the heights they've promised. This year, however, on the slow tracks of UAE, they will have to bring out their best. It is yet another chance for them to press their case for higher laurels.

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