Are the stars aligning once again for Mumbai Indians? It may seem so after they scraped through to the playoffs on Sunday thanks to Gujarat Titans’s victory over Royal Challengers Bangalore in the final league game of IPL 2023. Such has been MI’s hold on the title over the past decade that their failure to make the playoffs in 2021 and 2022 was an unmitigated setback. How can the five-time champions, brimming with superstars in all departments, not be jostling for the trophy come the last week of the tournament?
They are back where they belong this season. Mumbai have traversed a nervy path in previous years too, starting patchily before going on an immaculate run at the business end. This year, they won three of the last four league games to survive competition from at least three teams in hot pursuit of that fourth spot.
The one game they did lose in that final stretch was to Lucknow Super Giants, their opponents in Wednesday’s Eliminator at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Mumbai, in fact, have lost to LSG in all three meetings so far. Lucknow, led by Krunal Pandya after the injury to KL Rahul, will be certainly carrying this knowledge into the knockout game. They will also know that one misstep at this stage can undo the hard work of eight weeks. That’s what transpired last year as Lucknow went down to RCB in the Eliminator despite having done many things right in their debut season.
On Wednesday, in neutral territory, the outcome may be heavily influenced by how the batting departments fare. It seems to be the stronger suit for both teams, compensating for bowling units that lack a prominent spearhead. Their highest wicket-takers are two leggies at divergent stages of their careers. For Mumbai, Piyush Chawla has been the most effective bowler with 20 scalps, a solid comeback from the wilderness after playing just one game across the past three editions.
Lucknow’s Ravi Bishnoi has starred with 16 wickets, but he’s still learning the ropes at 22, just as prone to an off-day as a game-changing display. Nobody else from the two camps has registered compelling numbers this season. Mumbai, of course, haven’t been helped by the unavailability of Jasprit Bumrah and now Jofra Archer.
The batting line-ups, though, are studded with match-winners. In Mumbai’s case, there were confidence-evoking signs from their most recent outing against Sunrisers Hyderabad. Besides chasing down a 200-plus target for the fourth time this season, they had Cameron Green and Rohit Sharma coming to the fore at an opportune moment with a partnership of 128 runs in just 10.2 overs. “It was absolutely awesome being out there with Rohit. We helped each other through that,” Green, who notched his maiden IPL ton, said after the match.
If they get going on Wednesday alongside Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan, Lucknow’s bowlers may be in for some heartache.
In return though, Lucknow’s batters can also mete out rough treatment. Marcus Stoinis and Nicholas Pooran, in particular, carry the ammunition to take full advantage of a Mumbai bowling attack desperately lacking precise execution in the slog overs. That was laid bare in their meeting last week. Chris Jordan, a pale shadow of Jofra Archer, was carted for 50 runs in his four overs as Stoinis repeatedly punished the pacer’s indifferent lengths.
Stoinis and Pooran will be all the more dangerous provided they have a sturdy start from the openers. The onus for that will fall on Quinton de Kock and possibly Kyle Mayers. The latter hasn’t played LSG’s last two matches despite enjoying a fruitful campaign, primarily because the team has felt the need to bring back Afghan pacer Naveen-ul-Haq to bolster the bowling. They will have to mull over the direction they take on Wednesday.
These minor dilemmas aside, the need for both teams to put their best foot forward is paramount. Unlike Qualifier 1, there are no second chances here. While the team that finishes second-best will be heading for the exit door, the winners can only briefly rejoice before regrouping for Qualifier 2 on Friday.