Mahela Jayawardene, the Mumbai Indians coach, used the phrase 'wake up call' thrice, and with good reason, at the pre-final press conference. On the surface, it might have seemed more for effect, as the question to him was about Mumbai Indians' consistent run in IPL 2017. But, Jayawardene's iteration was for the three losses they've been handed by Rising Pune Supergiant this season.
After Rising Pune had nutmegged them off the penultimate ball in their opening fixture, Mumbai went on a six-match winning spree before they were halted again by - no surprises there - Rising Pune. This, too, was a close defeat following which Mumbai went unbeaten in all but two games, but who do they run into in the first Qualifier? Rising Pune.
The stakes were higher this time as the winner would get a direct passage to the final. Given how things had panned out, the result wasn't hard to predict. The consolation for Mumbai, if any, is that they have been comprehensively bested and not handed out a last-over heartbreak. As for Rising Pune, they have now won all their games at the Wankhede. In fact, so absolute has been their dominance over Mumbai that you will have to ferret out a scorecard from last May to look up their only defeat in five games.
After a disappointing 2016 season, Jayawardene said Mumbai had made it a point to address their notoriously sluggish starts to IPL campaigns. He also suggested that Rising Pune was the bogey team his team needed to sharpen their competitive edge against. "The first game was against Pune and they gave us a wake-up call," he said. "We realised that we had to play better cricket than that. We got a little bit of momentum....we won some close matches, made sure we kept going and again they gave us a wake-up call in the middle of the season.
"We made sure we regrouped and didn't slack as a group towards the later part of the tournament. It's been a good team effort and a lot of boys put their hand up in tough situations and won matches. I think it's a tough tournament because any team could beat you on the day, home and away conditions are different. But credit to the boys, they have really performed well. And again they gave us a wake-up call in the knockout stages. We had to go to Bangalore, regroup again and play a good game of cricket which is good because it keeps everyone on the toes going into the final."
The Rising Pune question, specifically the defeat in the first Qualifier, was put forth to captain Rohit Sharma as well. Should Mumbai win, this will be their third title - after 2013 and 2015 - with Rohit at the helm. His response to the two questions was a potpourri of processes, results and focus. But eventually, he made the point that Mumbai had never lost a Maharashtra derby, in Hyderabad.
"It's true we haven't played well against Pune. But now we're playing them in a neutral venue," he said. "They have been playing some really good cricket and it's just that we haven't been playing too well on those days. Conditions will be different for both teams. The aim is to avoid whatever mistakes we have done in the past against them. Hopefully, we've learnt from the mistakes and don't repeat again tomorrow. We've got to make sure we're better and we play good cricket and focus on what we need to do."
Sitting on the other side of the table, Rising Pune coach Stephen Fleming and captain Steven Smith flashed knowing smiles when their counterparts were talking. Fleming said they would continue to stay low-profile in the final like they have all tournament.
"We've faced a lot of challenges throughout this tournament and we've faced them well," he said. "We're quietly confident, pretty much like our entire campaign where we have flown under the radar and done things quietly. I don't think we'll do anything different when we get up. If we get up because there'll be a couple of wily foxes [Rohit and Jayawardene] who'll be trying to stop us. They're well awake now," he added for good measure with a laugh.
While Rohit conceded there wasn't much individual brilliance that contributed to Mumbai's success this year, he saw that as a positive in how the team has collectively pulled its weight. "Whenever they had an opportunity they put their hand up, taken the responsibility and obviously made sure that team crossed that line," he said. "Guys have come at different points and taken up the responsibility and goes to show that teamwork is so much important whether it's batting or bowling.
"Not everyone can have a good day every day, so it's important guys coming at different points deliver.[I am] honestly not really worried about the key players not delivering consistently because they have not had opportunities consistently. A lot of the game if you see, the first half was batted by the top three batsmen and the middle order has delivered whenever it had the opportunity."
Rising Pune share a similarity with Mumbai, especially in the way young players have come to the fore. Two of their key youngsters - Rahul Tripathi and Washington Sundar - are playing their first IPL. Washington, in fact, was the thorn in Mumbai's flesh in the first Qualifier. Smith felt their callowness might actually work in the team's favour in a high-profile final.
"That can play into your favour sometimes because you can just come out and play with freedom," Smith said. "I thought Washington was absolutely fantastic against Mumbai the other night, for a 17-year old to come out on the big stage against some quality players and to do what he did was outstanding. Those guys, the young guys, have been a real big part of our success throughout this tournament. Hopefully, they can have a bit of success tomorrow night too. "
For Fleming, the dynamic between Smith and MS Dhoni, who captained Rising Pune last year, was an integral part of the team's success. "They're both fine leaders with their performance. Arguably both are the best in their position. Certainly, MS for a period of time [has been up there with the best wicketkeeper-batsman] and Steve is right up there if not the best batsman in the world at the moment," he said. "It's just good communication between the two of them.
"Much has been made of their relationship but certainly sitting with them it's nothing but influential to the younger players and beneficial for the senior players and for me. It has been a great dynamic to be a part of. This is the first time I am working with Steve and I have enjoyed it thoroughly."
As for the coaches, how do they stay insulated from the pressure of producing results on the big night? Fleming felt most of the work was done at the start of the tournament and at the auction, and that this was the time to enjoy the fruits of the labour. "Then you bring the team together and find the right combination. If you're lucky enough to find that in time, then it pretty much rolls along itself," he said. "The finals should ideally be a time when you sit back because if you're in the finals things must've gone right at the start. You don't have to start over-analysing and make changes because it might not be beneficial to the team. Two of the most consistent teams are there and some great players on show. From a coach's point of view, just a good seat in the house."
Jayawardene concurred with his counterpart's assessment and said there was plenty of mutual respect between the teams. "You just have to be consistent throughout the tournament. For us as coaches, it's good that whatever we planned from January onwards, how we wanted to have backups, a lot of boys were leaving, England boys and all that, so to plan all that and to get everything right and for us to be in this position is just brilliant. Right now, it's just about having a good day tomorrow and letting the boys enjoy themselves."