There have been cricket teams that have defined eras. The Australian team of the late 1940s were monikered ‘The Invincibles’. The Caribbean team of the late 1970s and 1980s raised the bar to an unprecedented level. Australia led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting carried an unbeatable status.
In the IPL circuit, Mumbai Indians created a similar aura about themselves. In a span of eight seasons from 2013 onwards, they have won five titles. Their approach towards squad building became a case study for other teams, not even in IPL but all over the world. Former England skipper, Michael Vaughan fancied them to beat the Indian national side.
The Rohit Sharma-led side did not make it to the Playoffs this season but it is nowhere near an end to their era. Although, a lot rests on how the forthcoming mega auction will fare for them.
The only team that has come close to maintaining Mumbai’s level of consistency, albeit without a trophy, are the Delhi Capitals. Not quite in the echelons of Mumbai as yet, Delhi have shown promising signs. They are the only unit to make it to the Playoffs in these three seasons (2019, 2020 & 2021). They finished third in the points table in 2019, came second in 2020 and topped the points table this year.
It has been a turnaround from being mere pushovers in the preceding six seasons. And for what it is worth, they seem to have taken a leaf out of Mumbai’s book.
The Indian Core
It was quite early in their reign that Mumbai formed a core. Apart from acquiring Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, they added onto their reinforcements one player at a time to build an invincible squad. Soon Mumbai gained an advantage over other sides with the luxury of having three all-rounders in Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya and Krunal Pandya. This allowed them to deepen their batting resources.
Delhi also built a special core of their own. After Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant had spent a number of seasons with Delhi, the franchise added Prithvi Shaw to the squad in 2018 followed by Shikhar Dhawan in 2019. This sealed the top four for the team with top Indian batsmen, each of whom would be the first choice pick in any other XI, without conceding an overseas spot. The core is an advantage which not many other teams possess.
Known for letting go of impactful players, Delhi held on to Iyer. The right-hander had a torrid 2016 season after which Mumbai made a strong pitch to trade him. Delhi refused and Iyer has since become an integral part of the side. On a different note, when Gautam Gambhir left after the 2018 season, Delhi traded in the most like-for-like replacement possible in Dhawan. The left-hander has been one of the most prolific openers in the league since his return to his home franchise.
Barring Dhawan, everyone mentioned in this core is in their mid-20s or younger. Concurrently, they are experienced enough at the top level. The situation is the same around their regular foreign recruits in the batting department - Shimron Hetmyer and Marcus Stoinis. Delhi, thus, have maintained a beneficial conflation of youth and experience. Mumbai’s core, when their reign began, was also young.
A complete bowling artillery
Delhi have built a bowling attack to ace the varying conditions. It is a prime reason why they have done well in both India and in UAE. The UAE also offered different conditions in 2020 and 2021 but Delhi were quick to adjust with both quality seamers and spinners in their ranks.
In a similar vein with Mumbai, two overseas pacers are a must in Delhi’s outfit. The Capitals had Kagiso Rabada in 2019. Anrich Nortje, his countrymen, added more fuel to the pace attack in 2020, a season where Rabada clinched the Purple Cap. The third seamer’s spot was still open and Avesh Khan seized it in 2021. While Rabada was not at his best in 2021, two in-form pacers for the most part of the tournament kept Delhi on top of things. The fact that all three of them are hit the deck bowlers rather than relying on variations - an attribute whose success rests heavily on the pitch - works in their favour.
The addition of Axar Patel in the 2019 auction and Ravichandran Ashwin in a trade-in deal with Punjab in 2020 has strengthened the spin department to an extent that Amit Mishra, the most prolific spinner in the league’s history, found it hard to get a match. The spin department is an update over Mumbai’s.
The finishing inefficiency
Assembling four top Indian batters at the top permits an IPL side to go for overseas firepower to finish the innings. Delhi have tried to do the same employing Colin Ingram, and Sherfane Rutherford in 2019 and Hetmyer and Stoinis 2020 onwards, except the efficiency is missing. In fact, a finisher and thus the required batting depth have been their only roadblocks in this cycle.
It is the one aspect that is polar opposite to Mumbai’s roster who have not one but two finishers in Pollard and Hardik. Delhi have not had one since they parted ways with Chris Morris in 2018. Their first-choice XI has batsmen who can’t bowl and bowlers who can’t bat. Stoinis filled the void to an extent last season but his injury left the team with no backups.
Delhi have lost quite a few games due to this deficiency and got themselves into a tricky position in Qualifier 1 where they had to send Axar Patel at number four. Even with Hetmyer and Stoinis in the side, it is quite important for one of their top four to bat deep. The conundrum has caged the quartet of Shaw, Dhawan, Iyer and Pant.
Home away from home
“We are not playing in Delhi, so we are fine”, quipped Rishabh Pant at the toss of Delhi’s first match in IPL 2021. It is a strange statement to make. Teams thrive off their home conditions. But such is their combination that Delhi is happy to stay away from the dead tracks of Feroz Shah Kotla. While their bowlers can be effective in most conditions, their batsmen need truer pitches to flourish.
The Covid situation worked in their favour. In 2020, the pitches aided stroke-making. The tracks took the spinners out of the equation in most games. The caravan style fixtures in the first leg in 2021 kept them away from Kotla. Delhi flourished in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. They coped in Chennai and UAE in the second leg when the pitches were not similar as in 2020. They suffered the most in Sharjah, where they lost two of their three matches.
The situation draws another parallel with Mumbai, although in a different shade. Mumbai enjoyed their home ground that allowed their batsmen to prosper. The pitches of 2020 suited their style. But the one year they didn’t get the favourable pitches, they didn’t go beyond the league stage. This is where Delhi’s spin upgrade worked for them.
In the umpteenth resemblance, both franchises have had their surge under Ricky Ponting’s guidance. However, Ponting could not resolve the finisher and the batting depth issues in the Delhi camp.
Overall, the interrelations between Mumbai and Delhi’s squad building are aplenty. There are batting heavy teams like the Bangalore franchise of old as well as bowling heavy sides like Sunrisers Hyderabad. There are six-hitting teams like West Indies and accumulators like Perth Scorchers. Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals don’t represent just one or two shades but depict the whole spectrum. There are a few chinks but it is a reflection of the regulations in the tournament which restrain teams from gaining immortality.
With the mega-auction looming, these are the two teams that would want to retain as many players as possible. It is paramount for Delhi as they were on a steady pathway to achieve their first trophy. It is a process that has taken a longer route to the destination but if the core is dispersed, it will come at a standstill. The hard yards done in the past will be reduced to zilch.
For now, Delhi Capitals do not have a title but it would be cruel to deny their efforts. The trophy, well, is a souvenir of your endeavours.