As the ball whizzed off Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s bat, sped behind square on the on-side and kept its irrevocable tryst with the boundary rope, Rohit Sharma’s face contorted in a visceral admixture of agony and anguish. He quickly slid his cap from his head to cover his visage, hoping to draw a veil on his emotions, but one didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to predict what must have been going through the Mumbai Indians skipper’s mind.
Dhoni’s last-over, last-ball heroics, in a classic rolling back of the clock, at the DY Patil Stadium on Thursday night consigned the most successful franchise in Indian Premier League history to a seventh successive loss. No team in the tournament had previously lost so many games at the start of a season – Royal Challengers Bangalore must be delighted to have got the dubious distinction of six straight defeats in 2019 out of the way. The math whiz-kids might suggest that mathematically, the five-time champions still have a chance of progressing to the playoffs but clearly, Rohit doesn’t believe so.
Rohit’s night of woe began at the toss itself, won by his Chennai Super Kings counterpart Ravindra Jadeja. Within half an hour of the coin toss, and fewer than two minutes after he had taken guard, a forlorn Rohit was trudging back to the pavilion, his stay at the crease cut short off the second ball of the match by Mukesh Choudhary’s left-arm swing.
The second-ball blob was the 14th time Rohit had failed to trouble the scorers in the IPL. The Indian captain now has more zeroes in IPL than anyone else. Who would have thought?
Who would have thought, too, that a team with such a glittering record in the world’s most prestigious domestic T20 league would be so firmly rooted at the foot of the table that it’s hard to see how they will secure their first win? The top-order batting has been ineffectual, diffident, uncertain and wracked by self-doubt, leaving a talented but overworked middle with too much to do. The bowling has been toothless – MI have taken the least wickets of all teams at the halfway stage of the league phase, 36 in seven games – and uninspiring. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Mumbai have hurtled from one disappointment to another, courted one disaster after the next.
The popular narrative surrounding Mumbai’s abysmal run is the exodus of a handful of long-standing key players at the mega auction earlier in the year. Retention dynamics meant MI could only hold on to the services of Rohit, Jasprit Bumrah, Kieron Pollard and Suryakumar Yadav. They did break the back to win back Ishan Kishan, for whom they doled out an incredible Rs 15.25 crore, but as Hardik and Krunal Pandya, Quinton de Kock, Trent Boult and Rahul Chahar found new homes elsewhere, it was clear that Mumbai had their work cut out.
Their auction strategy didn’t seem the smartest either, particularly when it came to bowling. The distinctive slant towards left-arm seamers – they picked up Daniel Sams, Tymal Mills and Jaydev Unadkat, for whom the IPL has seldom brought joy – seemed an overcompensation for the loss of Boult, and it’s clear that their investment in Murugan Ashwin, the leg-spinning replacement for Chahar, hasn’t quite paid off even if he is the joint highest wicket-taker for the franchise this season alongside Unadkat and Mills.
For all that, though, Mumbai’s predicament can be attributed directly to the lack of returns from three of their four retentions. Yadav, who came to the party belatedly after missing the first two games whilst recovering from a finger injury, has been an honourable exception, making wonderfully innovative and attractive runs at a rapid rate. With 232 runs at a strike rate of 153.64, Yadav is the second-highest scorer behind the gifted Tilak Varma, the one new bright spot for the former titlists.
The other three in whom Mumbai reposed faith before the auction haven’t been in the thick of things. Bumrah has been underwhelming, three of his four wickets so far coming in one single innings against Rajasthan Royals. The lynchpin’s strike rate of a wicket every three and a half overs has exacerbated the anaemic feel to the bowling attack, and it’s unlikely that Bumrah hasn’t overstretched in a bid to make up for the lack of penetration at the other end.
Equally unedifying have been the returns of Pollard, recently retired from international cricket. The big Trinidadian has looked a pale shadow of his terrorising self, with only 96 runs from seven innings. He has also bowled just seven of a possible 28 overs, perhaps understandable because he is going at 10 to the over.
The biggest setback, though, has been the captain’s form. Even accounting that Rohit’s IPL numbers have been less than stand-out in the last four years, this year has been singularly frustrating. There has been no rhythm, flow or fluency to his batting; in the middle, he has often looked like a tortured soul, his famed timing deserting him as he has tried to hit the cover off the ball. Not impervious to his team’s predicament, he has attempted to take up too much upon himself; each succeeding failure has added to his frustration, annoyance and deep dismay. 114 runs at 16.28 aren’t stats he will look at with any fondness.
In a further reiteration of cricket’s standing as a great leveller, Rohit’s seven straight defeats in charge come just weeks after he completed a 14-0 sweep across formats in international cricket since taking charge as the Indian captain. Those wins in Tests, ODIs and T20Is came against New Zealand, West Indies and Sri Lanka. While he won’t swap even one of those victories for anything in the world, Rohit must be ruefully wondering how, or indeed whether, the tide will turn for his franchise.
What do Mumbai do from now on? Prudence would suggest they write this year off and back their young guns – Varma, the exciting Dewald Brevis and Hrithik Shokeen – to the hilt with an eye on the future. But pride may not entirely facilitate that approach because even if this campaign has ended even before it got off the rails, abject failure is not an option.