By Nishad Pai Vaidya
A feeling of ambivalence would be brewing in the Mumbai Indians’ camp with the return of a superstar and the loss of a game-changer. While Sachin Tendulkar has recovered from his injury and would return to bolster their batting, their bowling trump-card Lasith Malinga is down with a niggle.
Tendulkar has been crucial to Mumbai’s success as his mere presence at the crease helps ease the nerves in the dug-out. He is a calming influence at the top. In the last two seasons, he has defied age and has scored big runs. However, a stable opening partner has eluded him as Mumbai have kept chopping and changing their openers even as he went strong at one end.
During Indian Premier League (IPL) 2011, Tendulkar walked out to bat with numerous partners throughout the season and the instability at the top became pretty evident as the season progressed. Aiden Blizzard showed some signs of form, but was dropped after two failures. He returned in the dying stages and did well, but it was too late.
The absence of Tendulkar may have been a huge blow, but Mumbai had the ideal opportunity to groom a good back-up opening option. While Richard Levi has been the constant since the first game, the others around him have changed – similar to the trend in the 2011 season. Ambati Rayudu, Tirumalasetti Suman and Davy Jacobs have been his opening partners – none succeeding and making an impact.
Having said that, Levi’s own form is under question as he hasn’t lived up to the promise he showed in the first game. Apart from his fifty on IPL debut, the only other contribution of note was his knock of 29 against Rajasthan Royals. The left-arm spinners in particular have got the better of him and the word has spread around the teams that he struggles against that variety. However, Tendulkar’s return may change things for Levi as the former would play the sheet anchor role and take strike when the spinners are on.
It would be a mistake to drop Levi at this stage as Tendulkar is coming back after a lay-off. If Levi is replaced with someone else, then Mumbai would have a completely new opening combination, with Tendulkar playing a game after sometime and the other player coming in with minimal game time. Levi could be given a few more games to come good. Axing him now may cause a recurrence of the problems of the previous season.
Coming to the bowling, the absence of a slinger is a huge psychological blow. It is true that Malinga has played a pivotal role in Mumbai’s success, but apart from him they have the bowling depth to produce the goods and bowl the opposition out. Malinga’s presence in the bowling line-up is a psychological boost – similar to what Tendulkar is to the batting. The day he performs, the Mumbai bowling looks a formidable juggernaut that can tear through any line-up. If he struggles, the other bowlers feel a bit apprehensive and aren’t able to bowl with the same level of confidence. Robin Singh said that he would be available next week – a claim that has been contradicted by Nishantha Ranatunga, secretary of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC).
In Malinga’s absence, Munaf Patel would have to lead front the front. If one goes through Mumbai’s performances since the last season, Munaf has been a huge support for Malinga as he has built the pressure with his tight line and length. His economy rate reflects his value as he strangles the batsmen for runs. He has to maintain that level of performance – if not raise the bar. The deceptive slower ball is a lethal weapon in his armoury as it is difficult to pick.
Mumbai’s smartest acquisitions prior to the season were that of Pragyan Ojha and Rudra Pratap Singh. In Ojha, they got an able partner for Harbhajan – someone who could build the pressure in the middle overs. RP Singh was a kind of a back-up for Munaf and would now get a longer stint in the team having done well against the Delhi Daredevils.
RP Singh, Munaf and Ojha are second, third and sixth respectively on the list of the highest wicket-takers in the IPL. Even though RP Singh has lost his place in the Indian side, he continues to be consistent in the IPL and is a force to reckon with.
Apart from their last game against Delhi, Mumbai have gone in with two front-line seamers with Kieron Pollard and James Franklin to support. In case they choose to go in with three pacers, Clint McKay and Mitchell Johnson come into the picture. McKay was impressive during the summer Down Under and would push his case for selection. He didn’t do well in the game against Delhi, but it came while defending a very paltry total.
On the other hand, Johnson’s inclusion may give more depth to the batting as he can use the long handle effectively. If Mumbai decide to play five front-line bowlers, Johnson would help them strike the right balance. This is because, Harbhajan had to bat at No 7 against Delhi (where they played five bowlers) after the top order collapsed. A five-bowler strategy with Johnson batting at seven is a better proposition than the one they fielded against Delhi.
However, the toss-up between McKay and Johnson would depend on the foreign players Mumbai pick at the top. Jacobs should sit out owing to Tendulkar’s return and Dinesh Karthik’s stable performance behind the stumps. Pollard is a certainty and the only way either of McKay or Johnson would make it is if Mumbai keep Franklin out. Keeping the collapse during the previous game in perspective, Franklin should come in as he is a proven finisher and his calm temperament would help anchor the middle order.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)