A couple of moves cost Mumbai Indians the IPL. Both were loaded with nothing but risk. The first was to send Abhishek Nayar at No. 3. If that was not a gamble, whatever Robin Singh and the rest of the think tank thought before asking Harbhajan Singh to walk in to bat next was hard to comprehend especially when Ambati Rayudu, Saurabh Tiwary, JP Duminy and Kieron Pollard, batsmen who had played a crucial role in Mumbai reaching the final, should've been given the preference.
Even before Mumbai had won the semi-finals against Royal Challengers Bangalore, they were aware that Sachin Tendulkar, their captain and star batsman, was fighting to get fit for the ultimate game. It was only appropriate then that the management put faith in the team's most trusted lieutenants - a responsibility carried out successfully and admirably by the pair of Rayudu and Tiwary all season. Such has been the importance of that pair that they have easily been the Indian success story of IPL 2010.
On numerous occasions, both Rayudu and Tiwary had allied grit with instincts and smart strategy to put Mumbai in a winning position. They couldn't have asked for a better teacher than Tendulkar, who deserved to win the orange cap, a belated birthday gift. Perhaps, the biggest lesson they seemed to have learnt from the master was pacing the innings.
As a fresh example, refer to the semi-final against Bangalore. Mumbai had lost Tendulkar in the second over and though Nayar hung around staunchly to guard any collapse, it was Rayudu and Tiwary who pushed the opposition back and regained control before Pollard slashed ruthlessly. His 13-ball 31 allowed Mumbai ransack 77 runs in the last five overs, easily the biggest turning point in the semis. In the final, Mumbai needed the same vigour.
This does not mean that Nayar, a proven allrounder, was not up for the job. But he had his limitations. He was only playing his third match of the season, having spent most of the time recuperating from a wrist injury. Though he hung around tenaciously, Nayar failed to answer to Tendulkar's call to up the ante in the first ten overs. As a result there were a few airy swings and cheeky singles, but that did not force the issue. Ideally Nayar was suited in the lower order, a role he had managed successfully last year in South Africa.
"They tried to push their big hitters down the order so that may be my left-arm spinner can't bowl with the left-armer at the crease," was how MS Dhoni read Mumbai's strategy, but it was not just about big hitting. It was more about playing percentages and then picking the bad ball to get easy runs. Importantly, with Tendulkar in pain, the other guy needed to dominate.
That is what Rayudu did as soon as Harbhajan went back swinging his bat wildly. Immediately, he picked the loose balls to hit over the inner circle into the wide gaps and found the ropes easily. His positive approach allowed Tendulkar, who till then appeared cagey, to free his arms. The partnership prospered fast and 27 were scored off 14 balls before Tendulkar's punch landed in the hands of M Vijay at long-off.
Though hopes still lingered with Tiwary and Pollard still to bat, Mumbai's fightback had started late. The asking rate hovered in the ten-an-over mark which meant the following batsmen were under pressure and the margin for error was minimal. They had to accelerate from the first ball and take chances. Duminy and Tiwary failed, but Pollard nearly answered the rousing calls of the full house and threatened to pay back the (undisclosed) big purse the Ambanis had bought him for in one night. It was also an evening heavy with the uncertainty of IPL chairman Lalit Modi's future. Pollard's cameo seemed to lift the gloom pervading the IPL as it enlivened the atmosphere and brought cricket back to the centrestage. Except the miracle never happened, and Mumbai had to pay for their fallacy.
Explaining his batting line-up for the day, Robin said Mumbai wanted to play Pollard kin the final overs when he could take on the fast bowlers. Obviously, he did not mention Pollard's discomfort against spin and hence it was no point exposing him against Chennai's trio of spinners. But it would have been more viable to put faith in Rayudu and Tiwary in the top order and leave the finishing role to Pollard and Nayar. It was inexplicable strategic error that will haunt the league's richest franchise for long.