Let us do a small bit of maths. Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hyderabad are the only two teams in IPL 2021 to play five matches each at Chennai. Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers Bangalore play three each, while Delhi Capitals and Punjab Kings play two each. Chennai Super Kings won't play a single game (for obvious no-home-advantage reason), while Rajasthan Royals don't play a single game in Chennai either (inexplicably).
At what point do the franchise teams playing more matches in Chennai start to ponder about conditions on offer? It is one thing to play at home and carve out an entire strategy based on such conditions, like Chennai Super Kings have done in the past. But it is an entirely different situation when teams have to reformulate their strategies in lieu of such conditions, that too in a tournament where the margins are close.
It makes for some wonderment. Sunrisers Hyderabad have lost all three of their first three games. Royal Challengers Bangalore have won all three. Mumbai Indians have won two and lost two very close, low-scoring games in conditions alien to them. Isn't it obvious by now that playing in Chennai is obviously going to impact the race for IPL 2021's knockout spots?
There were two major talking points emanating from Tuesday night's game, especially keeping in mind the above mathematical standpoint. First, Delhi Capitals flew in, didn't even have a practice session apparently, went straight into the game, and beat the strongest side in this competition. Consequently, it sets up their status as a team to watch. Additionally, they now have only one more game to play in Chennai (against Sunrisers Hyderabad on 25 April) and even a 50-per cent return on their trip down South would be rewarding enough.
So far, Delhi have been very clever about the use of their resources. After Mumbai, they have the second-best squad in IPL 2021, and when you have different capabilities available on the bench, you mix and match them to put together the best possible solution on the field. Chris Woakes left out, only one foreign pacer, Amit Mishra brought in, Steve Smith getting another game and so on " the Capitals tore up their usual script and played according to the conditions on offer.
Leaving out the foreign pacers, barring Kagiso Rabada, made absolute sense. On a very Indian deck, you need more muscle in batting and thus Capitals boosted their batting strength. When you have someone like Smith to maneuver the bowling in middle overs, especially by countering spin, it is helpful. Shikhar Dhawan's start once again provided the platform and Smith marshalled the chase thereafter.
Even so, it was Mishra's inclusion that turned the game. Irrespective of what happens in the future, he will go down as one of the most effective spinners in IPL history. He has wicket-taking records and hat-tricks to his name, and for different teams. In his current avatar, Mishra is even more dangerous. He is not going to play the majority of games but will be brought in to be the joker of the bowling pack whenever conditions ask for it.
As a leg spinner varying his pace, Mishra is very potent. It is a stand-out difference from another leg spinner, like Rashid Khan, who uses higher revs and wrist positioning to bamboozle the batsmen. Mishra bowls slower, and puts more loop on the ball, to pick up his wickets. In his first spell bowling in the powerplay, he was wicket-less and gave away 10 runs. But then he picked up 4-14 in three overs to rout the Mumbai middle order on Tuesday night.
This is where the second underlying pointer emanates.
Mumbai Indians are set in their ways. It is almost like comparing them to the sun always rising and setting as per its usual routine. A proper batting line-up that doesn't overburden Rohit Sharma, throw in a few middle-order all-rounders, a five-bowler attack including three pacers, Jasprit Bumrah bowling the 19th over, and so on " these are a few of the idiosyncrasies that Mumbai operate with.
You would think it is easier to play against them when opposing teams know so much about their strategy even before the start of any game. Wrong! For, within their set ways, Mumbai Indians have an almost poetic synergy in motion. Their methods are set not to allow their players to perform, but vice versa. Their players' consistent and match-winning performances are what give basis to their set formulae.
Conditions in Chennai though have won over Mumbai's consistency. So much so, they broke away from routine and picked a third full-time spinner to counter Delhi Capitals on Tuesday. When was the last time they played without three frontline pacers? No one knows, rather, it would be too cumbersome to look through pages of history. It is an occurrence with an average appearance of once per season, maybe less.
It didn't work out, of course, because Mishra's spell broke the back of their middle order. Losing four wickets in that passage of play, reduced to 84-6 in the 12th over, and putting only 138 runs as target meant that Delhi were already ahead. It was about making things tougher and Mumbai did precisely that. One of the key elements of their performances has been an uplifting fielding effort " they make smaller targets look big, 150 looks like 170, and 130 looks like 150. Albeit, Delhi's batting is currently in-form to cope with such challenges.
The crux of the matter is that Mumbai Indians are now starting to suffer in Chennai. Four matches into the tournament and only one batsman has scored a half-century (Suryakumar Yadav's 56 against Kolkata Knight Riders). The next best score is Chris Lynn's 49 and he cannot even get a game at present. The middle-order is suffering even more " Kieron Pollard's highest is 39 with a strike-rate 111, while Hardik Pandya has managed only 35 runs in 4 matches at a strike-rate 106. Even the young, hard-hitting Ishan Kishan is under duress " 67 runs in four innings at a strike-rate 95.
These are batsmen who would be flying high playing in better suited, batting-friendly conditions and tormenting opponents. That Mumbai have still managed to etch out two wins and lost the other two games in close battles is a testament to their strengths as a well-oiled team.
Surely though, they are now dreaming about that flight out of Chennai.