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How the Mumbai Indians built their IPL empire

They have grown more formidable by the season, and this year they were well-nigh unstoppable. How did they get so far ahead of the pack?

Nagraj Gollapudi
On May 13, 2019, the day after the Mumbai Indians' stirring last-ball win against the Chennai Super Kings for their fourth IPL title, Pravin Amre received a feeler from the Mumbai Indians team management about taking on a role with them.
Amre, the Delhi Capitals' head of talent and their assistant coach, was recovering from his team's exit from the tournament after their defeat to the Super Kings in the second qualifer. Since 2015, when Mumbai formally set up a talent-scouting wing under former New Zealand captain John Wright, they had wanted Amre back, and they duly got him, in November 2019, after he amicably parted ways with the Capitals.
Amre had had success as a domestic coach with the Mumbai Ranji team between 2006 and 2013 (three title wins) and as a personal coach to several India internationals (Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik, Suresh Raina and Shreyas Iyer among them). He joined the Capitals as a scout in 2013 and was instrumental in the acquisition of the uncapped Iyer, who he then recommended for the captaincy a few years later. As assistant coach in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he played a hand in the success of the team's Indian batting core - Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, Iyer and Rishabh Pant - who were largely responsible for the franchise making the playoffs in the last IPL for the first time in seven years.
Back in the Mumbai fold, Amre was set a clear target: he was to help Ishan Kishan, Saurabh Tiwary, Suryakumar Yadav and Krunal Pandya become more consistent and impactful as batsmen. "Though they had won the championship, they realised that their middle order was not performing 100%," Amre says. "That was the homework they did immediately. Any other franchise, if they win the IPL, they will be in a different zone. But Mumbai think differently - they are two steps ahead in terms of their thinking and ticking each box."
Kishan was bought by the franchise for Rs 6.40cr (approximately US$1m) in the 2018 IPL auction. In that year's tournament, as Mumbai's keeper-batsman he scored 275 runs from 12 innings at a strike rate of 149. A year later, with the arrival of Quinton de Kock, Kishan played seven matches purely as a batsman, and in six innings he managed only 101 runs with four sixes.
Amre focused on working on Kishan's power-hitting and helping him play with a straighter bat. He had extensive one-on-one sessions with Kishan (and also Tiwary and Krunal Pandya) in training camps in a bubble at the private ground at Reliance Corporate Park in the Mumbai suburb of Ghansoli before the squad flew to the UAE for the IPL. Players and coaches swear by the state-of-the-art complex, where the facilities and equipment are supposedly better than those at the BCCI's National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru.
Kishan finished this IPL as Mumbai's leading run-maker and their highest-averaging batsman, and fifth-highest run getter among all teams: in 13 innings he compiled 516 runs at a strike rate of 145. The most notable transformation was in his big hitting - he produced 30 sixes, the most by any batsman this IPL. "Six-hitting ability is critical in this format," Amre says. "Mumbai Indians' batsmen hit the maximum sixes. Yes, we talk about [Kieron] Pollard, we talk about the Pandya brothers, but we should also not forget Ishan Kishan's role this year."
Kishan provided robustness in the middle overs while also occasionally playing the role of finisher. With de Kock and Yadav, he is now part of the Mumbai core and a vital element of their batting backbone. As Shiva Jayaraman points out , Kishan and Yadav's combined success - 996 runs - provided stability, limiting the number of changes Mumbai needed to make to their line-up through the season.
The eyes that find gems
Every IPL franchise now boasts of at least one scout who helps the team identify talent. Mumbai have been pioneers in scouting and remain untouched for the vast number of headhunters on their roster. Besides Amre and the general manager Rahul Sanghvi, whose roles also involve scouting, they have Wright; the former India and Tamil Nadu fast bowler and national selector TA Sekar; former India wicketkeeper and chairman of selectors Kiran More; former India allrounder Robin Singh (who also has been on the team's coaching bench for 11 years now); former Mumbai and India fast bowler Abey Kuruvilla; and Adhishwar Sekar, strategy consultant at the Barbados Tridents, whose brief is to look primarily for uncapped overseas talent.
Wright said in 2016 that as a scout his job is to report to the franchise "what the scorecard won't show". The tale of how he spotted the then uncapped and inexperienced Jasprit Bumrah, literally days before the 2013 IPL, during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and was captivated by the fast bowler's unique and unorthodox bowling action is now famous. So is the story of how ahead of the 2014 auction he earmarked the Pandya brothers in Baroda.
Wright says scouts are the "second eye" to ensure Mumbai don't miss out on promising players at auction. In 2018, Rahul Chahar, a young, uncapped legspinner from Rajasthan, was bought by Mumbai after the scouting team gave him the thumbs-up.
When the franchise heads into an auction, the scouts have review meetings between them about players Mumbai could potentially target. These meetings are chaired by Akash Ambani, 29, the son of Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and head of Reliance India Limited, which owns the Mumbai franchise. Ambani Jr has been a fixture at the auctions for several years now along with his mother, Nita. For the last two big auctions, in 2016 and 2018, Ambani directed strategy in coordination with the Mumbai coaching and scouting staff. He is also present at the pre-auction trials that are carried out over a few days, for which about 120 players from across India are flown in every year.
More than one source in the franchise has acknowledged that Ambani is sharp and proactive, with a keen brain. Those who interact with him say he keeps abreast of all the major T20 leagues worldwide through the year, and is always looking to get the best players possible, keeping abreast of their performances, even procuring videos of uncapped players from around the world to see that Mumbai don't miss an opportunity.
On the eve of this IPL, when their most experienced fast bowler, Lasith Malinga, opted out of the tournament to attend to his ill father, Ambani was hands-on in working out who would fit in best as a replacement, actively consulting the team management and Wright's staff. Eventually he was presented with the options of Australia fast bowler James Pattinson and England fast man Mark Wood. Collectively it was decided Pattinson could come in handy given the nature of the pitches in the UAE, and the decision worked well, at least in the first half of the league phase, on fresh pitches.
Winning the trading game
In November 2019, New Zealand fast bowler Trent Boult was bought by Mumbai from the Capitals in an all-cash deal. Boult had been the Capitals' best bowler, with 18 wickets at an economy of under 9 in 2018, the year they bought him for Rs 2.2cr ($345,000), but the next year he played just five matches, taking five wickets. The Capitals had worked out that Boult could not be an impact bowler at the death, and the pitch at their home ground, the Feroz Shah Kotla, was not generous to his style of bowling in 2019.
In contrast, so keen were Mumbai on Boult, they were happy to pay Rs 1cr in addition to his 2018 auction fee to secure his services. "With the Wankhede Stadium pitch having a tendency to assist seam bowlers in the evening matches, the seamers are expected to add to the home advantage," the franchise said in a media release at the time.
After the 2019 season, Mumbai felt they lacked a good powerplay bowler other than Bumrah, who was being spread thin because he was forced to bowl two overs in the first six to get breakthroughs. Ideally Mumbai wanted Bumrah to bowl just one over in the powerplay, one in the middle overs and two at the death, where he is lethal. This year Mumbai deployed Boult upfront to play to his skills, having him bowl three overs of the first six. It paid off handsomely: Boult finished with the joint most wickets, 16, in the powerplay this season.
Another key performer for Mumbai this IPL has been de Kock, among the best batsmen in the powerplay. Late in 2018, he was released by the Royal Challengers Bangalore, who had bought him in the 2018 auction for Rs 2.8cr ($440,000) and for whom he played just eight matches, scoring 201 runs at a strike rate of 124.07. Mumbai were keen to get a top-order batsman to replace Evin Lewis, who had struggled towards the end of the 2018 season. To offset the price paid for de Kock, Mumbai released Bangladesh fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman and Sri Lankan offspinner Akila Dananjaya. Since he moved to Mumbai, de Kock has been one of the best openers in the tournament, with two consecutive 500-plus-run seasons - 529 runs in 2019 and 503 in 2020.
Mumbai have also had the knack of unlocking the potential of players who other franchises have not had spectacular results with. Take the example of Yadav. Having had a season with Mumbai in 2011, he was bought by the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014 and spent four years there, mainly batting in the lower order. Gautam Gambhir, to whom Yadav served as vice-captain at KKR, said earlier this week that failing to retain Yadav was probably the Knight Riders' biggest loss in 13 years, because Yadav could easily have transitioned into a future leader.
In 2018, Yadav was the only Mumbai batsman to breach the 500 mark with 512 runs at a strike rate of 133. The following year he was second, behind de Kock, with 424 runs at strike rate of nearly 131. This year, Yadav was the best batsman for Mumbai, according to his captain Rohit Sharma, making 480 runs at 145 and finishing as the seventh-highest scorer in the tournament. Sitting above him were de Kock at six and Kishan at five.
Hang on to your main men
"It is not rocket science," Sharma said to the media on the eve of this IPL final. "We've worked really hard for this balance, these players. All these players were available to all the teams - right from Quinton de Kock to No. 11, Jasprit Bumrah. But we invested in them at the beginning, and we had faith in them."
Mumbai have excelled at retaining their best players. In 2011 they kept Sachin Tendulkar, Malinga, Pollard and Harbhajan Singh; in 2014, Sharma, Malinga, Pollard and Singh. In 2018, Sharma, Hardik Pandya and Bumrah were retained and right-to-match cards were used to buy back Krunal Pandya and Pollard. These players have all been key for Mumbai in the last decade.
Mumbai have consistently looked to invest in players who will be long-term bets. Malinga and Pollard are veterans but remain match-winners and mentors. Sharma, who was bought in the 2011 auction for Rs 13cr ($2.8 million) and fast-tracked into the captaincy midway into the 2013 season after Ricky Ponting stepped down, has grown tactically while using his strengths of being easy-going, friendly and a good listener.
Pollard announced himself with his heroics for Trinidad & Tobago in the 2009 Champions League T20, held in India. In the 2010 IPL auction, more than one franchise, including Mumbai, bid the maximum permissible amount of $750,000 to buy him. The IPL had devised a secret tiebreaker mechanism for this kind of eventuality, where a franchise could bid an additional amount in a sealed envelope for a player they were keen on. Pollard and Shane Bond were the first two players to be bought under the tiebreaker system, by Mumbai and KKR.
It is understood that Mukesh Ambani, having listened to the team management's projections of how important Pollard would be for Mumbai from a long-term perspective, provided an assurance that he would do what it took to get the player. Pollard has since completed 11 years with Mumbai, becoming the longest-serving overseas cricketer in the tournament. He has won five titles with them, including being the Man of the Final in 2013.
In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Pollard struggled for form. Eventually in the 2019 final he struck a 25-ball 41 to boost Mumbai to a modest target, which they defended on the last ball. This year Pollard had the highest strike rate in the tournament, scoring at 191.
A decade after the franchise signed a big cheque to buy him, Pollard has continued to repay their faith - as player, occasional captain, and as a mentor to many young players, including Hardik Pandya.
A proactive leadership group
Mumbai's success hinges on the collective that is in charge of their backroom. This leadership group includes former India fast bowler Zaheer Khan, who was hired by the franchise ahead of the 2019 IPL auction as director of cricket operations, in charge of strategic planning.
Former Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene, known for his tactical nous, who joined Mumbai in 2017 as the head coach, works on day-to-day planning with Bond, the bowling coach. They feed information and insights to Sharma, who is independent to take his own decisions. Having been a successful T20 captain himself, Jayawardene brings to the role his good communication skills and his ability to relate to the pace and rhythm of the game and to help players sharpen their game intelligence.
Akash Ambani tracks developments in the dressing room, but from a distance. According to a source privy to Mumbai's inner workings, the franchise's owners trust the management staff. "While they do get involved, they don't mess around like so many franchises, where you end up getting CEOs trying to be coaches."
Clarity of mind
On the field many variables affect the result, but every so often it all boils down to crunch moments, when the fate of a match (or more) hangs on one ball, one shot. In these situations, Mumbai's players usually somehow seem to find that clarity of mind and confidence to deliver.
Mitchell Johnson did it when he took two wickets in the final over in the 2017 final against Rising Pune Supergiant, defending ten runs.
In the 2019 final, the Super Kings needed two runs off the final delivery for their fourth IPL title. Shardul Thakur needed to score one run to take the match into a Super Over. Malinga, needing a wicket or a dot ball, chose to attack, floating in a slower-ball yorker to defeat Thakur.
This season, Mumbai were ruthless. They had the most wins in the league phase, were the first to enter the playoffs, and the first into the final. In the first qualifier they were put in to bat on a surface suited to chasing, and they blasted 200. In the final, Iyer elected to bat. The only other time Mumbai chased in the final, they lost, in 2010, but they put that ghost to rest this year, beating the Capitals for the fourth time this tournament for the title win.
Like serial champions in any sport, Mumbai are the team every opponent wants to beat, but they keep pulling away and ahead every season. Before this year's tournament they had set the bar high, but they raised it a whole lot with their dominance. "Winning back-to-back championships is never easy. How you can be better than last year - that is the challenge, right," Amre says.
How indeed. By paying attention to the little things, plugging the small holes, polishing the old and new. By being ruthless in the present and yet always keeping their eye on the next milestone, Mumbai have built a formidable legacy: an empire that looks set to only get stronger.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo