Mumbai Indians finished last in 2022, and when they started this season with two losses, it looked like something similar was on the cards.
Jasprit Bumrah had been ruled out of the season. Jofra Archer, who they invested heavily in last year knowing he wasn't going to play, looked like a shadow of his menacing best. Jhye Richardson was ruled out to a hamstring injury.
With the bat, there was a starting problem. Rohit Sharma's form seemed like an extension of a horror IPL 2022, where he went without a single half-century for the first time in a season. Suryakumar Yadav endured a strange month in the lead-up; he lost his place in the Test side after one outing and got three first-ball ducks in a row against Australia in ODIs.
When he started the IPL with a string of low scores, it had the makings of another tough season. But Mumbai hung in there, slowly picking up steam. Now, they are in the playoffs.
How did they turn it around?
Filling the Bumrah-Archer void
The idea of front-loading Archer and having Bumrah close out at the end was thrown out of the window even before the season began, when it emerged Bumrah would need back surgery.
Archer arrived at the IPL undercooked but slowly worked his intensity up, but seemingly had trouble every time he went full tilt. Two games in, he needed attention and made a quick dash to Belgium to consult an elbow specialist. He returned to play three more games, before it was amply clear he would need some more time. He has since been ruled out of England's summer.
Behrendorff, the left-arm seamer who was traded in from Royal Challengers Bangalore, has bowled much of his overs in the powerplay and has picked up eight of his 14 wickets in this phase. He hit the high notes against RCB, two weeks ago, where he dismissed Virat Kohli and Anuj Rawat in his first two overs in a match-winning effort.
At one stage, former Sunrisers Hyderabad coach Tom Moody went to the extent of calling him the best powerplay bowler over the last ten years in T20 cricket, after a swing-bowling masterclass felled Harry Brook and Rahul Tripathi in successive overs to set up the game against SRH.
But how they fixed the death-bowling gap is more fascinating. Initially, they went to Arjun Tendulkar, and he helped close out the same game where Behrendorff struck early, defending 20 off the final over with a series of wide yorkers.
In the second half of the competition, they went to Madhwal, a civil engineer and part-time tennis-ball cricketer who hadn't played with the white ball until four years ago but, at 29, is leading Uttarakhand, his state team, in white-ball cricket.
"If you want to bowl full with a tennis ball, you have to be fast," he told the Mumbai Indians website. Quick arm-speed and an ability to bowl accurate yorkers have helped him turn into a surprise package.
In his last three games heading into the playoffs, Madhwal has picked up seven wickets at an economy of 8.2, delivering his quota of four overs in each game. In three games prior to that, he managed a solitary wicket and bowled six overs overall.
The most-recent outing against SRH was a blockbuster, where Madhwal tricked Brook and Heinrich Klaasen with changes of pace in the penultimate over that went for just six runs. He finished with 4 for 37. It made a difference of at least 20 runs to the target Mumbai ended up chasing.
That Mumbai have handed the toughest overs to a rookie isn't surprising; their scouts have always helped identify back-ups they have been able to summon at different times.
Chawla learning new tricks at 34
Last year, Piyush Chawla was in the ESPNcricinfo studios, analysing Mumbai Indians, among other teams. This year, at 34, after being picked at his base price, he's showing Mumbai Indians what they missed last year.
His returns of 20 wickets so far in 14 games make it his most prolific IPL, having bettered his previous best from 2008 where he picked up 17 wickets. Eighteen of his wickets have come in the middle overs (7-16), the most by any bowler in this phase in 2023. More than the wickets, it's the control he's exercised that has made him a weapon across phases for Rohit. His economy of 7.8 is the joint-best among spinners this season.
Over the years, Chawla's strength has been a googly that delivers almost unfailingly. This year, he has varied his lengths well and has troubled batters with legbreaks too. Chawla has a formidable record at Chepauk, having picked up 11 wickets in eight games at an economy rate of 7.83. Up against Lucknow Super Giants on a slow-burner, he will be a crucial weapon.
"At the start of the IPL, I started thinking: 'Where are my runs!' But then I started doing the same things which helped me do well last year and everything came back to place"
Suryakumar on his IPL season
Suryakumar's return to form
Mumbai had a top-order problem to begin the season, and when Suryakumar began with scores of 15, 1, 0, 43, 7, it got more worrying. Barring the 43 against Kolkata Knight Riders, he hadn't batted long enough in any of the other knocks for anyone to figure out if he was in or out of form. Turns out, he wasn't.
"I feel it's very important to have that balance in life," he said. "That's what I have learnt from last year and this. The last year was full of highs. This year, it started the way I wanted it to start but then suddenly, three-four ducks in four-five games. I realised that you have to create that balance in your life… whether you are doing well or not.
"It's difficult because it's human tendency. It's very easy to say that you have to balance it out, stay grounded. But to implement that in real life is difficult. If you create that balance and stay the same with your friends and family when you are scoring runs as you are when you are not scoring runs, then it actually reflects in the game. I have felt it during the last month. At the start of the IPL, I started thinking: 'Where are my runs!' But then I started doing the same things which helped me do well last year and everything came back to place."
In his last ten innings, he's made four half-centuries and an unbeaten 49-ball 103 to deflate Gujarat Titans in an innings in which he pushed the boundaries of batting physics to the extent that left Sachin Tendulkar mimicking the shot and wrist work that had him drive a full-length Mohammed Shami delivery for six over third man.
Suryakumar now has 511 runs so far this season, with his strike rate of 185.14 the second-best among batters who have faced at least 50 deliveries. This surge in form has coincided with Mumbai's comeback at the back end of the season.
Varma and Wadhera - investments for the future
Astonishingly, Nehal Wadhera hadn't played a single T20 prior to the IPL. But in picking him, Mumbai knew they had a fierce ball-striker. An injury to Tilak Varma, who had been their breakout star last year, paved the way for more game time than Wadhera would have hoped for.
The 21-ball 40 against Titans was merely a teaser for what was to come. Against Chennai Super Kings, he showed tremendous application and game sense in a 51-ball 64. Save Wadhera, there was little else of note for Mumbai on a slow Chepauk deck. Then when he returned to the comforts of home at the Wankhede, he made an unbeaten 34-ball 52 in a 200 chase to help beat RCB.
Meanwhile, Varma opened the season with a six-hitting exhibition that fetched him 84 not out against RCB and has since taken his game a few notches higher.
After the previous season, Mahela Jayawardena and the team management had impressed upon him the need to up his middle-overs strike rate given the position he bats in. This season, Varma batted with freedom, impressing with his shot selection and temperament that had several experts call for him to be a serious middle-order contender in the national team. His strike rate of 158.38, as against 131.02 last year, underlines the improvement.
Teams like RCB have struggled to find that one middle-order Indian batter to lend stability outside the top three. Mumbai have had two - Varma's injury has been a setback - who bring with them the promise of a brighter 2024.