Like the Wimbledon tradition of the defending champion kick-starting proceedings on Center Court every year, a Mumbai Indians versus Chennai Super Kings clash first-up always tends to feel like the perfect ritual to inaugurate a new IPL season. Sunday’s encounter is not technically a curtain-raiser, but the four-month hiatus has, in a way, made people look at the second leg of IPL 2021 as a brand new mini-IPL season in which a couple of sides will begin with a head start.
One of those teams will be Chennai Super Kings.
It was only 10 months ago that CSK were branded an ageing, outdated franchise with a ‘finished’ captain that was in desperate need of a revamp, yet it was the Super Kings who turned out to be the strongest of all sides in the first leg. Two losses were all they endured in seven matches, and they looked nailed-on to finish in the top two before the Covid outbreak brought about an abrupt halt to the season.
Unlike in IPL 2020, CSK looked like a cohesive unit which enjoyed every minute it spent on the field. The results felt like a mere byproduct of the same.
The returning Suresh Raina, a rejuvenated Ambati Rayudu, a transformed Ravindra Jadeja and a hungry, motivated Moeen Ali all added a breath of fresh air to the batting, which was head and shoulders above any other side in the competition. Had they possessed a more penetrative bowling unit, they could very well have won each of their seven matches.
But their opponents on Sunday, Mumbai, know that CSK do, in fact, have a slight weakness on the bowling front, something they handsomely exploited in the previous H2H clash and will look to do again in Dubai.
CSK, in the two sides’ previous meeting, initially seemed to have batted MI out of the contest by posting a staggering 218 batting first, but, not for the first time, Mumbai defied odds to chase the target down. The chief architect of the heist was Kieron Pollard, who arguably played his best ever T20 knock to take the Blues over the line, but both he and Mumbai will know that such a chase would not have been possible against a stronger bowling unit.
The defending champions, too, had problems of their own in the first half, none bigger than their middle-order which, outside of Pollard, looked hopelessly out of touch. The Pandya brothers and Ishan Kishan, between them, averaged 13.23 across 18 innings in the first half of IPL 2021, returns which resulted in Kishan getting the axe prior to the halt.
Moving to better batting tracks in UAE should delight the trio, but it is worth remembering that neither of the three have had great practice heading into the second leg. If Mumbai are to move up the points table quickly, they would need their middle-order firing.
They would also need their pacers, who looked rusty and uncharacteristically out of sorts in the first leg, to hit their strides from the get-go, but that should not be too big a concern, for the Blues have an abundance of experience on that front.
In all, there is little to separate these two sides heading into Sunday’s clash, despite the points table suggesting otherwise.
Can CSK crack the UAE code?
Last season, there was a familiar sight at the end of every CSK match. Sporting a broken face, the franchise’s head coach Stephen Fleming, at the press conference, explicitly claimed match after match how his side simply could not excel in UAE because the team was built taking Indian conditions into account. There were a few consolation victories towards the end of the season, but CSK still finished 7th, looking like a shadow of their own selves.
Could things be different this time around?
There are reasons to be optimistic.
CSK fell short on a lot of aspects in IPL 2020, but lack of intent with the bat turned out to be integral to their downfall. No one scored at a slower rate than them (7.1) in the powerplay, while their RR of 7.4 in the middle-overs was also the second-worst in the competition. This abject absence of intent with the bat resulted in them making a meal out of several regulation run-chases.
But they corrected this, and in some style, in the first half of IPL 2021. CSK struck at an astonishing run-rate of 9.4 in overs 7-15 in the first half, the best rate amongst all sides. Their overall scoring rate of 9.6 was also the best in the competition, and they also found the fence more frequently than any side (a boundary every 4.6 balls). And this change in approach did look like a conscious team effort, evident by the fact that four of their batters struck at over 150.
It was telling that the two quickest scoring sides in the middle-overs were the finalists last time around, so CSK will go a long way in burying the ghosts of IPL 2020 by just displaying the same intent they did in the first half this season.
Mumbai’s pacers vs CSK’s openers
The new ball is not as important in T20s as it is in Tests, but a glance at the CSK team will tell Mumbai that it is the Super Kings’ openers who lay the foundation for middle-order onslaughts.
In the last four matches in the first half, Faf du Plessis and Ruturaj Gaikwad put together three 70+ run opening stands. They also combinedly struck six individual fifties during this period, with at least one of the two posting a fifty-plus score in each of the four matches. Du Plessis, as things stand, is the third-highest run-getter in the competition.
Should the South African be ruled out with injury, a lot of problems will get solved by themselves for MI. The onus will then be on Robin Uthappa to fill-in efficiently, and that could be a very tough ask.
But regardless of who opens for Chennai, MI will know that their seamers will need to step up. In the first half, MI’s pacers averaged 126 in the powerplay and struck only once every 99 balls. Only SRH returned worse figures among all sides. Their boundary percentage of 69.05% in the first six overs also turned out to be the worst in the entire competition. This is in stark contrast to how they fared in IPL 2020, where they struck once every 16.9 balls and averaged 20, the best amongst all sides.
Both Boult and Bumrah visibly struggled to provide breakthroughs in the first half, and if Mumbai are to dominate Sunday’s clash - and subsequently the second half - this will need to change.
The last time these two sides met in the UAE, the contest was decided inside the first six overs of the match, where MI removed half the CSK side. The powerplay might just be a phase in the match, but there is every reason to believe that the winner of the ‘CSK Openers vs Mumbai Pacers’ battle will have a significant edge in the contest.
Litmus test for the CSK spinners
CSK dominate when their spinners do well. They currently find themselves second on the table and, surprise surprise, their spinners were terrific in the first half. CSK spinners’ economy (6.3), average (19.3) and strike rate (18.5) were all the best in the competition in the first half. This was mainly due to Jadeja and Moeen, but Imran Tahir also chipped-in in the only game he played.
The question now is, can they continue being lethal in the UAE? For that is something that did not happen in IPL 2020. Last season, CSK spinners had the worst average and economy rate, and the toothlessness of their slower bowlers also played a significant part in them finishing seventh. In particular, IPL 2020 was a season to forget - with the ball - for Jadeja, who averaged 53.00 and conceded runs at almost 9 RPO.
It remains to be seen how the pitches will play, but Dhoni will need a much better showing from his spinners this time around if his side are to finish in the top two. Sunday will be the ideal litmus test.
Mumbai have had no major squad changes, and the only selection headache they have is choosing the second overseas seamer. Expect one of Adam Milne or Nathan Coulter-Nile to get the nod.
Rohit Sharma (c), Quinton de Kock (wk), Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Nathan Coulter-Nile/Adam Milne, Trent Boult, Rahul Chahar, Jasprit Bumrah
Chennai Super Kings
Sam Curran is expected to be unavailable for Sunday’s clash, while du Plessis is also a doubt due to concerns over a groin injury. DJ Bravo, who did not bowl in the second half of CPL 2021 due to injury, could also not be an automatic starter.
Ruturaj Gaikwad, Faf du Plessis/Robin Uthappa, Moeen Ali, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Ravindra Jadeja, MS Dhoni, Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar, Josh Hazlewood, Lungi Ngidi