Even in a game of glorious uncertainties like cricket, heading into Indian Premier League 2021, Mumbai Indians reaching playoffs is arguably the safest prediction to make. There could be debates about the highest run-scorers and wicket-takers but you would be brave, perhaps even foolish, to bet against Rohit Sharma’s side finishing in the top four at the end of the league stage.

Such is the aura of the five-time champions who are chasing an unprecedented hat-trick of titles. They’re the team to beat and everyone, including the other seven teams, know that well.

Over the years, MI have benefited greatly from the incredibly strong core of Indian players at their disposal. In captain Rohit, all-rounder Hardik Pandya and pacer Jasprit Bumrah, they have three of India’s finest white-ball cricketers spread out perfectly in their lineup. Of course, Kieron Pollard and Lasith Malinga too have played a huge role in the team’s continued success, but the base provided by this Indian trio is something the other teams must surely be envious of.

However, Mumbai Indians have never looked as intimidating as they do currently. And the reason for that is the utterly dominant manner of their IPL 2020 triumph, a major part of which was the phenomenal performances by Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan.

Archive: Key areas where champions Mumbai Indians blew the competition away in IPL 2020

When the previous season began, MI would’ve been confident of their batting line-up. They had two world class openers in Rohit and Quinton de Kock, and perhaps the most fearsome death-overs combination in Hardik and Pollard. But the middle order was a bit of a concern. Their record suggested that they slowed down after the powerplay and they needed someone to lay the platform for the big hitters.

Unfortunately for the other teams, Mumbai Indians ended up finding not one but two game-changers. Yadav and Kishan – the two batsmen with the least experience at the highest level – were the biggest positives for their team last season. Yadav thrived under the responsibility of batting at No 3 while Kishan was not the first choice when the season began but he once he came into the XI, he never looked back. Their talent was never in doubt and they had shown what they were capable of in the previous seasons, but their free-flowing strokeplay right through IPL 2020 has given MI a whole new dimension. Add to this, their confidence was further boosted by strong international debuts in the recent T20I series against England.

With Rohit, de Kock, Yadav, Kishan, Pollard and Hardik in the top six, and Krunal Pandya, who recently scored the fastest fifty by any player on international debut and also hit two unbeaten centuries in the Vijay Hazare Trophy before that, coming at No 7, Mumbai Indians is the only team in the IPL whose batting lineup has genuine match-winners from top to bottom (when everyone is fit and available).

IPL 2020: Uncapped but unfazed, Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav emerge as MI’s batting heroes

This brings us to the bowling, which is perhaps the relatively weaker department of Mumbai Indians. Bumrah’s abilities with the new ball and at the death need no introduction, and Trent Boult was superb too in IPL 2020 as he matched the record for most wickets (16) in the poweplay in a season. But it is the rest of the bowlers that oppositions would want to get the most out of.

With Malinga’s legendary career coming to an end, MI have released Australian fast bowler James Pattinson and brought in New Zealand’s right-arm pacer Adam Milne, all-rounder James Neesham and promising South African left-arm pacer Marco Jansen. The overs provided by Hardik and Pollard will be crucial too. And in terms of spin, Krunal, Rahul Chahar and Piyush Chawla are likely to get the most number of games.

Boult will be expected to swing the ball up front and Bumrah can be counted on to deliver at either end of the innings but again, it is the middle overs that are a concern for Mumbai Indians. They had the second-worst economy-rate (8.07) in the middle overs in IPL 2020 and their opponents would want to make the most of that period. With MI’s batting being as strong as it is, it is imperative for teams to attack smartly and post formidable totals.

Apart from this, the only other real threat for MI could be the schedule of their season as they will play nine of their 14 league matches in Chennai and Delhi. Ideally, the likes of Sharma, de Kock, Yadav, Pollard and Bumrah would definitely prefer the ball zipping off the surface. Although Mumbai have shown their ability to adapt to different conditions on many occasions, the slow-ish nature of the Chennai and Delhi pitches could pose a challenge for them.

A hat-trick of titles isn’t easily forgotten. Especially in a team sport where even individual greatness is dependent on support from others. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the NBA, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in the Champions League, the Australian men’s cricket team in ODI World Cups, and the Australian women’s cricket team in T20I World Cups are some examples of teams that have achieved this incredible feat. Make no mistake, Mumbai Indians will be hungry to join them.

Against the best, it almost always comes down to belief. And Mumbai Indians’ opponents will need plenty of it. With the T20 format being so unpredictable and the IPL being ultra competitive, Rohit Sharma and Co have done remarkably well to establish themselves as the finest team of their era. And on May 30, 2021, they might just set a mark that has never been achieved in IPL before and will take some beating going forward.