While it's natural for teams to stick to winning units, Chennai knew they were still far from arriving at their best bowling combination. Their victory against Rajasthan Royals came on a rather forgettable day in the field, for all bowlers except Doug Bollinger. The two biggest culprits were Albie Morkel and Muttiah Muralitharan, who leaked 56 and 52 runs respectively. It is disturbing when your overseas picks let you down, more so in Murali's case, given he is one of the leading bowlers in the tournament. Chennai's selection issues were made easier by the injury that ruled out Morkel, who has struggled to settle into the opening bowler's role. Chennai replaced him with Thilan Thushara, and to rebalance the batting, Michael Hussey claimed Murali's overseas slot. That meant offspinner R Ashwin had to come in at the cost of a batsman, to fortify the spin-attack. Though Hussey was not at his best with the bat, the other two changes were masterstrokes. Thushara struck first ball, sending back Shikhar Dhawan to break the opening stand of 46, and later went on to dismiss a weary Tendulkar when the game was a lost cause for Mumbai. Ashwin exploited a slow pitch to pick two wickets and plug the scoring. He kept it simple, focusing on cramping the batsmen and bowling flatter deliveries as a defensive option. It was a big task for Ashwin to step into Murali's shoes, but he ensured the latter wasn't missed.
The first six overs of the chase seemed to have stamped Mumbai's authority on the match. Tendulkar and Dhawan kept up with the asking rate, hitting at least one boundary per over. But at the stroke of the Powerplay, the match started to turn. A loose drive cost Dhawan his wicket, and Thushara conceded only three off that over. Shadab Jakati, who bowled the next, could have had Tendulkar stumped, or caught at short third man off a streaky outside edge. Tendulkar wasn't looking entirely comfortable - two overs earlier, he had squatted on the pitch after hitting Ashwin for a boundary, clearly struggling to deal with the weather. He was unhappy with his bat and asked for a replacement, but he was not the same batsman again. Dhawan's wicket, and Tendulkar's problems gave Chennai an opening. Thushara finished another boundary-less over just before the time-out. After conceding 46 off the first six, Chennai gave away only 16 off the next three. That passage shifted the momentum towards Chennai.
At the end of nine overs, Tendulkar couldn't take it anymore. The elements had come to Chennai's rescue as he walked off the field, dehydrated. The short duration of Twenty20 doesn't allow an unwell batsman enough time to recuperate and return to the crease. Mumbai suddenly faced a stern examination of their batting depth and ability to finish the job without the safety net of Tendulkar. Mumbai had rarely found themselves in such a situation through this tournament and when they did, the middle order failed the test.
It wasn't extraordinary field placements from MS Dhoni which caused Mumbai to combust. The batsmen only had themselves to blame, because their trigger-happy methods cost them their wickets. When Tendulkar walked off, Mumbai needed 104 off 66 - very gettable, with hitters like Kieron Pollard to come. They needed at least one player to take responsibility and bat through, but in the absence of a set plan, the batting wilted. Ambati Rayudu, fresh from his half-century against Deccan Chargers, sashayed down the track to loft Suresh Raina out of the ground but was beaten by the shortened length and the lack of turn to be stumped. Dwayne Bravo tried to clear long off but fell to a well-judged overhead catch by Thushara. Saurabh Tiwary was tied down at the other end, scratching at less than a run-a-ball. The slowness of the pitch, combined with the accuracy of the spinners was an irritant for Tiwary. Sweeps, nudges and pokes found the fielders as he tried to break free. A frustrated slog found midwicket and his misery came to an end. Pollard failed to live up to his price-tag of $750000, holing out to long-on for 5. A mis-judged single and a direct-hit sent back R Sathish before Ryan McLaren was caught plumb in front. The collapse of six for 23 prompted an SOS to Tendulkar.
The team with possibly the most atrocious catching record in the tournament turned a new leaf. Chennai dropped three catches in their previous game and in Bangalore, let off Robin Uthappa twice before he butchered them. Tonight, nearly all the catches stuck. Thushara held Bravo's skier at long off, fell backwards and remained in that position to savour the moment. He attempted to take another steepler, but it slipped through his fingers as he tried to repeat the backward tumble. Thankfully for him, M Vijay who had run in from long on and positioned himself behind Thushara, somehow managed to take the catch. Barring a difficult return chance that Jakati out down, it was a clean display in the field.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo