Every self respecting sports analyst believes in the intangible concept of “peaking at the right time” and the importance attached to it. As a race we humans haven’t advanced ourselves far enough to predict this trajectory of success and failure but the evidence supporting the existence of this phenomenon is too varied and wide to be ignored. It’s hard to say if the Mumbai Indians peaked early but it’s clear that the convincing victories in the waxing phase of the league led to their cruise mode attitude during the waning phase. This caused a flutter in the team that could not be smoothened in time for the final. And they were about to face a team that had the most faith in their starting combination because of their passage through fire during the final few games, games that mattered.
Having sealed their semi final berth by the 10th game of the league, Mumbai Indians were left to ponder on how to go about approaching the remaining 4 games, games that didn’t matter to them because, for one, they were far ahead of 2nd place contender, and for another, there is no direct incentive for a team to play hard for the no. 1 spot, or more points in the table. Mumbai Indians committed the same mistake most teams commit, they experimented. Abhishek Nayar was given a chance. So was Dilhara Fernando and J.P. Duminy. Ryan Mclaren, Dwayne Bravo and R. Satish painful recipients of this tweak. Their zest for experimentation can be best understood by the fact that Mumbai Indians fielded 4 different opening partners for the final 4 games. They could be forgiven, just like any other team in the world in their similar position, for trying to improve on a winning combination. We humans and our ambitions!
The bowling and fielding of Mumbai Indians throughout the season has been the best in the league. The have consistently restricted teams to lower totals than any other league in the team. This is not through any individual brilliance. It’s more to do with sound planning and better execution by the bowlers and the fielders. Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and R. Satish have been electric in the field at every position. Taking out Satish and Bravo from a winning team definitely weakens it even if the replacements are as fine as Fernando and J.P. Duminy. One looses the flexibility to play any position. Lackadaisical effort in the field was clearly evident when the Indians letting down easy chances much to Jonty and Sachin’s chagrin.
In Saurabh Tiwary and Ambati Rayadu, the Mumbai Indians had a well tested combination at no. 3 and 4. They both had played many notable innings with the right temperament and composure that allowed the 6.5 ft. hightlight package to close the deal. This batting line-up, except for Bravo and Satish misfiring, was working well. The bowlers were rarely called upon to wield their bats which is why on the rare occasions that they found a few balls to hit at the end of the innings, they swung for the fences with good effect. Even Harbhajan had the confidence in his position and role to play a memorable 18 ball 49. There was no call to alter this forumla. The only devil’s argument I can make is that this pair was inexperienced to handle the crunch situation of the semi’s and finals. A valid argument one might say. I for one would have liked to see J.P. Duminy at no. 3. He certainly has a proven record in Test matches to play an innings of character. His single handed demolition of Anil Kumble in the Champions League encounter is my only memorable account where I sensed Kumble exhibiting complete futility by the end of his spell. Perhaps, in order to focus him at the opportunity on hand Sachin offered the no. 3 slot to Nayar hoping that Duminy might challenge that by stringing a few convincing man-of-the-match performances. His contributions, although notable, could not inspire much confidence for no. 3. Abhishek Nayar was clearly an undesired and illogical gamble at no. 3. His Ranji career with Mumbai was spent at the lower order, which was his comfort zone, the zone where he performed his best! The approach to pacing an innings at no.3 and a lower order position are not similar. This gamble did not pay off for the Mumbai Indians in the finals. Both Nayar and Tiwary were not comfortable at their respective positions during their short stints. Nayar was uncomfortable against the new ball and spin. His running between the wickets and calling has caused confusion on each and every one of his batting performances. A frustrated Sachin was left to rue this choice when Nayar was found short of the crease, attempting an injudicious single, that too at a critical juncture in the game. Had Nayar gotten out sooner, Rayadu and Tiwary may have gotten a better chance at forming a partnership. This was not to be. By the time Nayar was out it was too late for anybody to break into their innings easy.
The confusion caused by this shift in batting order was also evident when Rayadu and Pollard were batting. Even thought it was apparent to most of us that Pollard had to face most of the strike for Indians to have any realistic chance for a win, Rayadu’s actions did not reflect this planning. Eventually Rayadu was also run out trying to refuse strike to Pollard by not running for the second. Had someone misplaced the memo to him!
It is a sin in professional sports to experiment with a winning combination, especially when it mattered, but more and more teams commit this sin every season. Mumbai Indians can be forgiven for this but I hope the lesson is clear. The pursuit to find more individually productive bodies in a team sport may not necessarily be the best thing for the team. For a change, stick with the winning team. The basic tenet of any team sport is that individual performances do not matter when the team is winning.
25th April, 2010, Mumbai