The Mumbai Indians were never supposed to reach this far. Thirteen matches into the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League, they sit in the fifth position on the points table with 12 points. Their qualification into the playoffs depends on Rajasthan Royals losing to Kings XI Punjab on Friday, after which they would have to beat the Royals themselves on Sunday.
The defending champions are clutching at straws—barely. They are gasping for air at the surface; they were supposed to have drowned long ago.
Their season had begun horrifically with five straight losses in the United Arab Emirates, the roots of which went all the way back to the player auction earlier in the year when they let go of players such as Mitchell Johnson, Dwayne Smith, Glenn Maxwell and Dinesh Karthik.
They tried to use the purchases of Michael Hussey and Zaheer Khan as a cover-up. How wrong they were.
Hussey, who switched colours after being the leading run scorer last season playing for Chennai Super Kings, scrambled his way to 30 runs in his first four games for Mumbai, before being dropped. Zaheer played two games more but had to pull out of the season due to an injury.
However, after the horrid UAE leg, they were back in the familiar confines of Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium—their beloved home where they had gone unbeaten last season. The return to the home environment worked wonders as they broke their losing streak by ending Kings XI Punjab's five-match winning run.
A win over the Royal Challengers Bangalore in their next match, also at home, got them back in the reckoning. All their batting woes of the first five games seemed long gone as they mustered up totals of 160-plus and won convincingly. But their resurgence was to meet a premature end as MS Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings beat them at home for the first time since 2012.
They responded with another dominant batting performance against Sunrisers Hyderabad, chasing down 157 with ease. But in the very next game, they struggled to get past 140 and eventually lost to Kolkata Knight Riders.
With three wins in 10 games, their campaign was all but over. What's more, Lasith Malinga, the life of their bowling attack, flew to the United Kingdom to join the Sri Lankan team. It was now a bridge too far. Or was it?
Out of nowhere, the Mumbai Indians won two games on the trot and kept their season alive.
Lendl Simmons, who was drafted in midway through the season, returned scores of 38, 68, 12, 62 and 100 not out—the first century of the season. Hussey was also brought back and scored a half-century, even as Mumbai recorded their first 50-run stand for the opening wicket. Rohit Sharma and Ambati Rayudu also found form and provided solidity to the batting down the order.
In the bowling, the relatively unknown Jasprit Bumrah ably stepped into Malinga's shoes, with a unique, bamboozling action et al. Harbhajan Singh also used his years of experience to keep the runs in check and make the opposition batsmen err.
The Mumbai Indians were back...again.
Then, on Friday, after being put in to bat by Delhi, Hussey and Simmons showed the Wankhede what had been missing at the start of the season. The duo put on a swashbuckling 87 in eight overs, before skipper Sharma stepped in and took over at the fall of Simmons' wicket. Hussey fell at 120 for two, but it only brought out Kieron Pollard with eight overs to go.
Carnage was in the offing.
How wrong we were.
A poor shot from Sharma led to him to throwing his wicket in the 15th over with the score on 140, before Pollard followed suit two balls later. What followed was something that defined Mumbai's season—inconsistency and unpredictability. Only this time, the Indians showcased it within a single match.
It seemed as if they were selling hot cakes in the MI dressing room, as the batsmen followed each other back in an almost clockwork routine. A promising score of 140 for two in the 15th over plunged to 173 all-out with three balls to spare. They had lost their last eight wickets for 33 runs.
As Sharma watched his team collapse from the dressing room, with an expression of sheer disgust on his face, you would have thought Mumbai deserved to go out for such a collapse in a must-win game. As Delhi raced along to 43 without loss in the first five overs, the writing had begun to appear on the wall.
However, Mumbai were fortunate to come up against a team that had all but forgotten how to win a match—a team whose batsmen aced Mumbai in throwing wickets away. Three quick scalps brought them back into the game, before JP Duminy and Manoj Tiwary tugged back.
With 32 to win off the last 12 deliveries, when Marchant de Lange began the penultimate over of the game with an above-the-waist no-ball, all seemed lost again. But the South African recovered, dismissed Duminy and maintained a tight line and length to bring the equation to 25 off the last six.
Then, Bumrah, who had been whacked for a six and a four in his previous over, produced some exceptionally accurate Malinga-esque block-hole bowling to leave Delhi short by 15 runs. Yet again, Mumbai had lived to die another day...or hour, depending on Friday's other result.
Whether Mumbai stay alive in the tournament till Sunday, they will know they could have very well avoided such a scenario had they been more consistent. While their bowling hasn't been too bad, their erratic displays with the bat could cost them a spot in the play-offs.
However, after having shot themselves in the foot on a number of occasions this season, what matters is the Mumbai Indians are miraculously still in contention. They have managed to carve out enough points to keep themselves in the reckoning, however scrappy their performance has been.
One would even argue that they do not deserve to qualify, given their inconsistency. But Mumbai wouldn't mind such criticism one bit, would they?
After all, they were never supposed to even reach this far.