Saturday, May 2, 2009

Hasselhoffs redux

Another game against KKR, another win. Four in a row, woohoo! Way to go, etc. etc. I could chirrup about what a great team Mumbai are, how they have a chance to go top of the table, how they deserve to be top of the table, but I won't. I don't actually believe that is true.

Call me cynical, call me too demanding as a fan, but there are certain things that you expect of a Mumbai team, no matter what the competition. And this Mumbai team is not there yet. Last time around, I wanted a performance by the middle order, and promptly, to give them that opportunity, both Sachin and Sanath got out cheaply! Great chance for the middle order to prove itself. Instead, it just spluttered along, and it was really a one man show by Duminy. That we got to 148 was largely due to a sensible innings by him, holding up one end for most of the innings, and accelerating at the end.

Perhaps its time that we revisit our expectations when we bat. Last year, a score of 180 was the minimum you would target, batting first. In South Africa, the pitches have aided the bowlers a bit more, and 160 looks like a winning total. So far this season, only twice has a team successfully chased a total of 160+ in ten attempts. And in 18 attempts at chasing a score of 140+, teams have been successful 8 times, with one of them ending in a tie. I would rather Mumbai aim for 160 at the start and get there, rather than aim for 180 and end up at 140 or 150. With our bowling attack, 160 should be defendable.

The other lingering concern is the number of dot balls played. 39% of the balls faced were dot balls (if you exclude Duminy's innings, that number goes up to 46%). That in T20, is way too many. Even in fifty over cricket, that is a sign of a struggling team. Getting that number down to 20% is itself worth an extra 20 runs to the total. This clearly is another area that needs to be addressed soon. Teams better than KKR (yes, Mumbai are clearly not the best team even if they look like the best on paper) will definitely exploit this, would have probably even chased down the target of 149.

Mumbai are fast acquiring a reputation as chokers, and this is not unjustified. Out of the nine defeats they have suffered in the IPL so far, six could rightfully be classified as chokes. The victory against KKR was the closest win they have ever had, and hopefully the team has learnt something about winning close games.

That said, I still believe that Mumbai can go all the way, and are in fact, the best equipped team to do that. But for that, they need to iron out these chinks. There is still a lot of time to set this right, and I think they will only get better as the season goes along. I really don't mind these blips if it means that the team will start peaking towards the business end of the league.

Next game is against the Kingfishers, who are on a mini-run of their own. It should be a win for Mumbai, but like KKR showed, a little bit of complacency can come back to bite you. Especially this season, every team looks capable of defeating every other team (with the notable exception of KKR who would be relegation material if there were a division 2).

Just do the basic things right, rotate the strike more often, aim for a more sensible target. Aim to play atleast 25 balls. And for heaven's sake, Bhajji is a surprise option, not your regular number 3 batsman. Send Rahane at number 3, that's where he has scored most of his runs in domestic cricket. Or instead, if an early wicket falls, go with Napier. Thats all from me. Best of luck, lads!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mumbai Indians vs Kolkata Knight Riders Review

People talk of Mumbai-Delhi as one of the biggest rivalries in Indian cricket. That's certainly true, but even Delhi have not got onto my nerves as much as KKR, starting right from the team owner. Which is why I think the fake IPL player is one of the best things that happened to the IPL (since Mumbai haven't won it yet). Which is also why defeating KKR gives me a tad greater pleasure than defeating DDD!

I did not get to watch the game, so I cannot comment on the details, but what caught my eye was the intent at the start. Tendulkar simply raced off the blocks like ... (well, when was the last time he did that anyway?) and when Jayasuriya joined in, it looked like absolute mayhem. In fact, judging from the cricinfo commentary, the intensity looked good all through the game. An extremely clinical performance.

There are lots of things that look right about Mumbai. Both Jayasuriya and Tendulkar look in great nick, and when they get it right, it will end up being a royal hammering for the opposition. The bowling looks very good as well, and Malinga in particular is extremely hard to get away, with those toe crushing yorkers of his. The fielding has some scope for improvement, especially in reducing the number of misfields, and in the throwing technique, but otherwise it looks very good as well.

The only negative point is the continued below-par performance of the middle order. The potential is clearly there, but for some reason, they haven't fired yet. It is not concerning yet, as it is still very early days, but I'd love to see them turn in that one performance that will cause the other teams to start sweating. Apart from that, it was a near perfect day. There was a great opening partnership, we batted the opposition out of the game, and ruthlessly dismantled them in the field.

I was talking to Homer yesterday about the thin batting order that Mumbai have. Pinal Shah coming in at number 9 means that the team is already a batsman short, and it does end up placing a lot of pressure on the tail, especially in close games like against Deccan. My suggestion was to promote Bhajji up the order so that the regular batsman are batting in the final overs, and what do you know, Tendlya actually promoted Bhajji up the order! (I think Homer is sneaking information to the team and taking credit for it - he claims he does that by telepathy, having stolen the means of that from Buchanan - but as long as Mumbai wins, I don't really care. More power to Homer and his activities!)

While it is a brilliant idea (obviously!), I think it was used at the wrong time. The reason for promoting Bhajji is to have your regular batsman batting in close run chases, and with 9 wickets in hand with 7 overs to go, it wasn't really needed today. Unfortunately, the surprise element will be lost the next time Bhajji comes up the order. But that doesn't mean it can't work either. Sadly, I did not communicate this to Homer yesterday. If only!

I think this is a good time to start working on squad rotation. Obviously, no one will play all the games, and this is as good a time as any to try out the bench strength. Shikhar Dhawan looks a bit out of touch and so he can be given a break, with Rahane getting a couple of games. Likewise, rotate Jayasuriya/Duminy/Bravo with Napier/McLaren/Ashraful to give them a hit in match situations. And later, give Zak and Slinga a break.

Next up are the bubblies led by the Prince of Patiala. While a tougher game than KKR, it should still be a win for Mumbai. While their batting is fairly good (though not good enough for our bowling), their bowling looks very thin. It is a potential banana skin, given how Mumbai lost to Deccan, but Mumbai should avoid the same mistakes and come out on top here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mumbai Indians vs Deccan Chargers Review

It totally sucks waking up at 5:30 in the morning and watching your team lose! Can't say I haven't had any practice, after having done that for most of the 90s. This was a game that Mumbai threw away. Only two matches in, and I am already finding faults with the team.

I can't be bothered to do a full review, so I'll stick to a couple of points from the game.

First, the bowling attack really did keep us in the game. Gibbs and Gilchrist started off looking as though they were in their prime, and there was nothing the bowlers could do to stop the run flow at that stage. However, they fought back (with a bit of luck along the way, courtesy Venugopal Rao running out Gibbs) brilliantly to keep what looked like 200+ at one stage to 168.

It is a bit ironic that the player Mumbai deemed surplus to requirements - Dwayne Smith - played such an important role in defeating us. He batted brilliantly, bowled well to keep the run rate down, and took that catch of Duminy. In short, everything that we normally expect Bravo to do, who looked a bit short of his best.

Tendulkar is clearly no fan of the strategy break, and he must have only deeper resentment for it, seeing as how the break totally killed the team's momentum. That said, the batting post Tendulkar's dismissal resembled a headless chicken running around the field. Granted, Ojha is difficult to get away, but the batsmen should really have targetted Venugopal Rao to maintain the run-rate. Letting him get away for only ten runs in his first two overs was just not on. An extra 5-10 runs in those two overs could well have been the difference between a win and a loss, considering we only lost by 12 runs.

Two games, two middle order failures. Tendulkar looked very good at the top, and as long as he was batting, there was no doubt Mumbai would win. Duminy played a good innings too, but surely, Dhawan and Bravo need to add that little bit more in terms of batting. Dhawan, in particular, looks a far cry from the player of last season. To be fair, the batting has not been an absolute failure, but when you have Bhajji coming in at five down, the batting looks a bit thin and you cannot afford to have a couple of players fail in the game. Hopefully, the team management is working on fixing this problem.

Bowling-wise, we had Zaheer, Malinga, Bhajji, Bravo, Jayasuriya and Kulkarni. With Nayar, Duminy and Tendulkar also capable of sending down an over or two, it looks like overkill. Much as I would love to see Kulkarni playing, it make more sense to shore up the batting by bringing in Saurabh Tiwary. In both games that Mumbai have played so far, the batting has been caught a bit short, while the designated fifth bowler (Raje/Kulkarni) has only bowled one over.

Alternately, it might be helpful to have someone in the middle order who can blitz away in the middle/late overs. I would play Graham Napier instead of Bravo for a couple of games to see if the idea works out. We'll lose Bravo, the bowler, but that will be an opportunity for Kulkarni to bowl his full quota. Plus, Napier himself is capable of bowling some spin.

Next game is against Kolkata, and going by current form, it should be an easy win for Mumbai. Kolkata's bowling has just not fired so far, and shouldn't cause too many problems for Mumbai, while Malinga, Zaheer and Bhajji should be able to cope with the threat of Gayle and McCullum.

Our next four games are Kolkata, Punjab, Kolkata (weird that we play Kolkata twice before we play Bangalore or Delhi even once!) and Bangalore. All emminently winnable, and a great chance to get some momentum going in to the tougher set of fixtures.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Chennai Super Kings vs Mumbai Indians Review

We're back after a long hiatus. What to say, except that not watching the Ranji Trophy means you don't have a perspective on the game.

Very good start to the tournament for Mumbai, as they defeat Chennai by 20 runs. At the outset, Mumbai is a stronger team than last year. The bowling, especially, has strengthened considerably with the arrival of Zaheer Khan and Kyle Mills, and the return from injury of Lasith Malinga.

A bit of rain before the game meant that the pitch had some juice in it, and Dhoni made the right choice in deciding to bowl first. Tendulkar, however, sussed out the conditions perfectly, and decided that 145-150 will be a competitive total. The key, however, would be in not losing early wickets, and to that end, he and Jayasuriya gave Mumbai a reasonably good start.

A pitch invasion notwithstanding (by a canine, of all creatures that invade pitches), Mumbai drifted along sedately at around 6 runs an over, till suddenly the middle order collapsed. At that stage, 140 would have been a good total to get. As Mumbai fans have seen so often in the past, Abhishek Nayar came to the rescue, and roughed up Flintoff a bit. Three sixes in an over. And to think those were the only sixes in the Mumbai innings! And that really was the difference between a defendable and a competitive total.

The target of 166 had the experts claiming that Mumbai were slight favourites to win this particular game, though I disagreed. The pitch had eased out after the initial few overs, and the manner in which Mumbai scored 60 off the last five overs meant that Chennai, with their superior batting, could do the same.

However, Mumbai bowled to a plan. The six overs of powerplay were bowled by Zaheer, Malinga and Bravo, and cost only 40 runs. In the middle overs, Bhajji and Jayasuriya cleverly bowled flat and hit full lengths to keep Chennai scoring at only about a run a ball. By the time the quicks were reintroduced, Chennai needed 75 from 7 overs, and a combination of fast yorkers and slow loopy bouncers choked Chennai from the game.

So, what do we learn from this game? One, with a bowling attack with four quality internationals, Mumbai will win games more often than not, as long as the batting doesn't throw it away. Two, the team looks very well balanced, with seven bowling options, and batting down to number eight. However, if the middle order fails, like it did today, the batting looks somewhat brittle. But that should not happen often, and Nayar's presence at number six means that the situation is never hopeless! Three, there is good depth in the squad. We have cover for every single player in the team, and that is going to come in handy in a tournament like this, with each team playing three games a week.

Not all is hunky-dory though. It was strange that Rohan Raje got in ahead of Dhaval Kulkarni. Kulkarni has more pace than Raje, and after his trip to New Zealand, he is better placed to exploit the conditions in South Africa. Unless he has an injury that I have not heard of, which would be tragic, if true. The other aspect bothering me is the 'keepers we have. Not even in the best of days will I rate Pinal Shah or Yogesh Takawle as anything other than journeymen. Unfortunately, the only other 'keeper we have is Luke Ronchi, and given that you cannot really drop any of Jayasuriya, Malinga, Bravo and Duminy, we have to made do with Shah or Takawle.

Given the way today's games panned out, it is safe to say that bowlers will be a lot more important this season than the last. That said, it will be the fast bowlers and spinners who will hold the trumps, by exploiting the bounce in the wickets. In other words, the dibbly-dobblers who are neither here nor there will get targetted for quick runs. Equally important will be how the Indian players adjust to the extra bounce here, and on the evidence of the second game, that will not be easy. Doesn't matter how many South Africans you have in the team and support staff. And this is where Mumbai should find it somewhat easier, with most of the local players spending a month in South Africa training for the tournament.

The atmosphere in the ground today was a bit funereal, though it picked up during game two. Guess they are all Rajasthan fans in that country. Even though I can only watch the games on TV, I already miss the Mumbai fans egging on the team and barracking the opponents.

My predictions for the final four are Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore. But given that flipping a coin should yield better predictions, I'm sure that will come back to bite me.

Final thoughts - Shane Warne's spell today was absolutely magical. That alone was worth the entrance money. He was far too good for the Bangalore line-up with his flippers and ripping leg breaks. You can name him in Australia's test line-up tomorrow, and he should still be able to win them the game!!

Update: Read Bhajji's views on the game here. There isn't a lot in terms of inisghts into the game, hopefully there will be some in future. Not sure if it is actually Bhajji, but since Bid Adda has listed this on their celebrity blogs page, it probably is.