By: Chinmay Vaidya
The Mumbai Indians have become the IPL's modern dynasty. After failing to capture a title in the competition's first five seasons, Mumbai won five championships in the ensuing eight years to establish themselves as the kings of the league. A strong Indian contingent with Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and both Pandya brothers paired well with international stars like Kieron Pollard and Lasith Malinga worked wonders for Mumbai. The club's developmental component cannot be overlooked, producing Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan and Rahul Chahar to join an already loaded group. When Malinga bid farwell to the IPL, the Indians swung a trade to land Trent Boult after adding Quinton de Kock to the top of the order the previous season. Both moves have worked brilliantly. Mumbai has already made history with its fifth IPL title. But the 2021 competition offers another chance for the record books; the league's first three-peat.
No team has won three consecutive titles in IPL history. In fact, only one team has made three straight finals. Chennai Super Kings went to four straight title games in MS Dhoni's heyday, relying on the same formula Mumbai have today aside from using Dhoni's clout as India's captain to attract the best domestic talent. CSK maintained strong roster continuity centered on a talented Indian core while adding game-changing internationals. Will Mumbai be able to ride similar continuity to a third title?
In 2019, Mumbai's "top 10" players accounted for 143 total games played. This group tallied 2,323 runs and picked up 74 wickets on the way to a fourth championship. Malinga bowed out from the competition, but Mumbai was able to double his wicket production with Boult. Kishan only played seven games in 2019 before playing 14 in 2020. Mumbai's "top 10" essentially duplicated its production in 2020, scoring 2,489 runs and racking up 77 wickets in 149 combined games. Kishan's monster season, Yadav's continued excellence after a breakout 2019 and de Kock's brilliance at the top of the order masked underwhelming seasons from the Pandyas. Sharma struggled as well early in the season and an injury kept him out of some games late before a match-winning 68 in the final.
Replicating this level of production for a third consecutive season won't be easy. In 2019, Mumbai had four batsmen in the league's top 20 run scorers and five bowlers in the top 20 wicket takers. The Indians only had three batsmen in the top 20 run scorers in 2020, but they all finished in the top 10 with Sharma landing at 23. They also had three bowlers in the top 20 wicket takers but like the batsmen, these players ranked very high. Chahar was finished in the 11th spot and James Pattinson was tied for the league's 20 best wicket tally before being sidelined for Nathan Coulter-Nile. Speaking of Coulter-Nile, he might eventually cede his spot in the lineup to Jimmy Neesham if the Indians want to extend their batting lineup.
Injuries may also come into play. If we count a full season as 14 league games and two playoff games since Mumbai hasn't played in the eliminator, the Indians have gotten 89.4% and 93.1% of the possible games from their top 10. That group will remain intact with Neesham and Coulter-Nile likely to be in that 11th spot. If injuries occur, Mumbai may have to lean on unproven talent. Rising COVID cases in India, particularly in Mumbai, is another worry. IPL personnel have already tested positive for the virus ahead of the season. An outbreak within a team could upend the entire season.
Natural regression is most likely to derail Mumbai's quest for a third straight title. Bumrah and Boult combined for 52 wickets in 2020, a number they are not likely to reach again. de Kock is vying for a third consecutive 500-run campaign, an incredibly difficult feat. Yadav and Kishan will be trying to replicate big-time performances as well. The Pandya brothers are in form heading into the league; they could return to peak form to offset some regression from Mumbai's top players. The same thing goes for Sharma. Neesham's ability as an all-rounder could add more runs and wickets. The Indians should have enough cover for natural regression if players who had down 2020 campaigns can bounce back.
Ultimately, if Mumbai stays healthy, the team will have a strong chance to at least get to the final. The franchise broke its "odd year" trend in 2020 and its players are in form during the limited cricket played since the pandemic took over the world. History is hard to achieve, but the Mumbai Indians are no stranger to chasing it. They'll be going for it again in 2021.