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How Did Mumbai Indians Get This Good?

Ben Jones looks at how the IPL’s record-winners built a T20 dynasty.

And so, the Group Stage of IPL 2020 is over. It’s been a remarkably even tournament, with the race for Playoff qualification as tight as it’s ever been, and net run rate permutations taking over the final two rounds of fixtures, as teams jostled for position. In a unique season, and at a time when the cricketing world has needed the IPL to be good, it has delivered.

It’s also done its job of displaying, once again, that in T20 cricket the cream does still rise to the top. For all the thrills and excitement of the next week or so, and the unique challenges these matches pose, the group stage is a more complete test of who is the ‘best side’; everyone plays everyone, (normally) home and away, and you’re left with a team top of the pile that can broadly be agreed upon as the leading lights of the tournament. This year is no different, because Mumbai are comfortably the best side on show. For the the third time in four years they have finished top of the ladder, a fact that shows their quality almost as much as the four IPL titles in their trophy cabinet. Rohit Sharma’s side have built the best squad, and a side that plays aggressive yet intelligent cricket, with bat and with ball. The table doesn’t lie – going into the Finals stage, they are without question the team to beat.

So how did Mumbai Indians become the best T20 side in the world?

World Class Recruitment

In T20 leagues, you bowl your first ball on the auction table. Proper strategy and planning is fundamental if you are to assemble a high quality group of players, and Mumbai recognised this more than most.

In their book Cricket 2.0, Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde state that “The roots of Mumbai’s trade-off defying squad were in 2010, when the franchise had the foresight to establish a scouting network comprising six scouts, which would be led by the former India and Mumbai head coach John Wright from 2015.” This group was able to identify and target undervalued young Indian talent. The most notable fruits of this search are well known, that core trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, and Krunal Pandya. These players were then locked in at a very affordable rate, leaving Mumbai with cash to splash elsewhere. Kieron Pollard – who would go on to become perhaps the most successful player in T20 history – joined Lasith Malinga as another star overseas, and then in 2011, Rohit Sharma was brought in as the ‘franchise player’ and captain. The pieces had largely come together.

Specialists are key in T20, but the balance provided by that middle order of Hardik and Krunal – two all-rounders favouring batting and bowling, respectively – gave Mumbai serious flexibility, which was then boosted again by Pollard’s functional seam bowling. Mumbai could have three bowling options in their top eight, perhaps even in their top seven, without affecting their batting capability. As Wigmore and Wilde put it: “The nature of drafts, auctions and salary caps in domestic leagues meant that there was generally an inverse relationship between batting and bowling strength. Escaping this trade-off made Mumbai a remarkable side […] this trio gave Mumbai the basis to find a way to avoid the trade-offs inherent in building a T20 side.”

Indian Spin, Overseas Pace

Since the start of 2013 – the year Mumbai won their first IPL title – there’s been a clear strategy in the construction of their bowling attacks. Given India’s depth in spin bowling talent, Mumbai have always had high quality domestic bowlers doing the majority of their spin bowling. Given the relative scarcity of Indian seam bowling talent (something which has begun to change in the last few years), Mumbai have also tended to focus on overseas imports for their quick bowling. In this time, no side has relied more on Indians to bowl their spin overs, or on overseas imports to bowl their seam overs.

In particular, Mumbai have tended to go for left-arm overseas seamers. That flexibility afforded by the Hardik-Pollard-Krunal trio has been used to make sure the bowling attack is broad and varied. Consistently, they have recruited an overseas left-arm seamer, this season in the shape of Trent Boult but previously with Mustafizur Rahman, Mitchell McClenaghan, Jason Behrendorff, and Mitchell Johnson. With the right-arm angle covered by Bumrah and Malinga, ensuring that Rohit is able to shuffle his attack and use the appropriate bowlers in the appropriate situation, has consistently been a priority.

The partnership of Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah is one of the greatest in T20 history, their quality never more apparent than in the death overs. Since the start of 2013, there have only been a handful of seamers better in that phase than Malinga and Bumrah; one of them has only played in two seasons (Mitchell Starc), one of them (Chris Morris) is an elite death bowler, and one of them played for Mumbai themselves (Mustafizur Rahman). The benefits of having two historically world class death bowlers are obvious, and huge. However, on top of the ability to dominate the closing stages of an innings, the knowledge that these two have got the death overs on lock means that the other overseas seamer which Mumbai sign has tended to be a new ball strike bowler. Since the start of 2013, no team’s overseas seamers have a better strike rate in the Powerplay.

Consistency and Balance

The consistency of the top players has been remarkable. If you look at the core MI players, the guys to have played most matches since that first title in 2013 (Rohit, Hardik, Pollard, Bumrah, Malinga, Harbhajan), those players have delivered consistent returns almost without fail. There have been mediocre seasons where they fall below their own high standards, but according to our Match Impact model, from the 40 individual campaigns over that time only 10 have been “negative” in their Impact on the side, and the majority of those are only slightly negative. There have been individual dips, such as Pollard having to be dropped in 2018, but largely there has been little to no need to shake-up that core. The backbone of MI have very rarely let the side down.

Mumbai have always been strategically versatile, able to beat teams in different ways. Over the last eight IPL seasons Mumbai have won 62% of the time when chasing, and 56% of the time when batting first. In individual seasons, their win percentage for batting or bowling first has only once slipped below 40%. By beating the system of Trade Offs, and being equally strong in both batting and bowling departments, Mumbai have never allowed the toss of the coin to unduly affect their success – 58% win percentage when calling correctly, 59% when calling incorrectly.

A lot of that consistency is built on knowledge of home conditions – which naturally brings this current year into question. One of the most impressive things about Chennai Super Kings’ IPL win in 2018 was that, while their previous success had always been built on exploiting the conditions at their home venue in Chennai, that campaign saw their home matches moved to Pune due to protests. For CSK, a side completely grooved to win at home, to come out on top with basically no home matches, was the crowning glory for their three titles. What this 2020 season represents for Mumbai is an opportunity to go some way to emulating that achievement. In an entirely different manner to CSK at the Chepauk, Mumbai have always exploited the conditions – and proportions – of the Wankhede, and so to win a title without setting foot inside it would be a huge statement.

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In the history of the IPL, there have only been three occasions when the team who tops the Group Stage table goes on to win the whole tournament: Rajasthan Royals in the inaugural 2008 edition, and Mumbai’s last two title wins. While Rajasthan’s victory was a one-off, Mumbai’s dominance in three of the last four seasons feels like anything but. The IPL is a tournament structurally inclined towards competitive balance; salary caps, auctions, the requirement to release players, all of these measures are there to keep competition fair. Mumbai’s excellence threatens this balance. Their mastery of the earlier auctions and the systems in place which do allow dynasties to develop, have seen them maintain success – since winning their first, never going more than a year without winning another. 

Ultimately, Mumbai have ran their race already. Sport is wonderfully random, and the joy of Playoffs and similar knockout matches is that the stakes are disproportionate – objectively, we know that Sunrisers winning three matches in a row and taking the crown doesn’t make them a better side than Mumbai, but that’s where the tension is. Yet Mumbai can rest easy even if they don’t win this year’s title, because their dominance of the league – on a recruitment, strategic, and individual level – will see them back again next year.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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