Producer: Conde Nast Entertainment
Rating: 3 Stars (Out Of 5)
Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians, a Netflix original docu-series that rides on the unprecedented access granted to its producers, Conde Nast Entertainment, isn't only for fans of the high-profile team owned by Mukesh Ambani, mentored by Sachin Tendulkar and captained by Rohit Sharma. The 'reality' show, the first of its kind made in India, is for all cricket lovers who are of the view that the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the best thing to have happened to the gentleman's game.
In fact, even those that believe that the IPL only encourages a hit-and-miss version of cricket will find much to take away from the series. It provides a fascinating insight into how a team is built with disparate individuals and how it then works on and off the field in the face of day-to-day challenges. The series is a lowdown on Mumbai Indian's 2018 campaign, which did not go as well as the team owners and managers would have expected. In 2017, the franchise had won the IPL title. In 2018, they failed to defend the trophy, finishing fifth on the leader board.
While tracking success and failure, highs and lows, pep talks and dressing-downs, Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians captures at least some of the complexities that a team management has to reckon with in deciding what the nucleus of the squad should be and how to zero in on the starting 11 without undermining the motivation levels of the players who warm the benches.
"It's a like a game of chess," says Mumbai Indians head coach and Sri Lankan cricket legend Mahela Jayawardene in Episode 1, which opens with the players' auction 12 weeks ahead of the first match. You have to be four-five moves ahead all the time, he adds. An articulate man who does not mince words when the chips are down - Jayewardene isn't averse to the F-word - he reminds a pivotal team member, Krunal Pandya, that he is getting big money because he is good. "Do not forget that," he says to the young player.
The docu-series, the first four episodes of which take us not only into the Mumbai Indians' war room and the players' changing areas, but also inside Antilia, the Ambani home in Mumbai, where the players are invited for a team-bonding session after they lose the season opener to Chennai Super Kings. It is time for relaxation before returning to the grind tomorrow, Nina Ambani, whose husband owns MI, tells the boys before they fan out across the opulent mansion for a treasure hunt.
The 2018 season does not pan out too well for MI. The team loses five of the first six games. But the struggle to regain the waning intensity itself is great to watch because it is in this phase of adversity that the team's processes are tested to the fullest. The fans in the stands and elsewhere in the city (watching the matches in hair-cutting salons, on mobile phones and cramped cubicles) are the first to give vent to their disappointment. As the results fall short of expectations, the MI boys first receive words of encouragement and are then subjected to tougher truisms by Nina Ambani, Jayewardene and the team's bowling coach Shane Bond, another member of the support staff who believes in speaking his mind.
When the tide refuses to turn after a handful of matches, Tendulkar turns up to talk about one of the early IPL seasons when MI was in a similarly hopeless situation but had gone on to win the tournament. Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties, so the makers of the series, too, would have had no way of knowing where the show would take them. For them, it would have been like following a story over whose culmination nobody had any control over. Audiences know how the MI campaign ended in 2018. The point of interest will, therefore, be what went into the process rather than what came out of it.
The series frequently moves out of the immediate gladiatorial arena to provide player profiles (Caribbean swashbuckler Kieron Pollard, Aussie all-rounder Ben Cutting and Kiwi fast bowler Mitchell McClenaghan feature prominently), accompany some of the team members (Rohit Sharma, Surya Kumar Yadav) to different parts of Mumbai where they started playing the game as schoolboys or travel to different Indian cities to try and understand the backgrounds from where the Pandya siblings, Hardik and Krunal, enthusiastic young Patna-based wicketkeeper-batsman Ishan Kishan and India fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah come from. In the case of the Pandyas, we see a very, very strong fraternal bonding, with the brothers talking about always having each other's back. Jasprit Bumrah's mother gets her due. The India pacer lost his father when he was five and was raised by his mom.
Similarly, Ishan's principal source of encouragement is his mother, who, the young cricketer tells us, prays half the day for him. The boy is full of beans. During a session with the team nutritionist, he preens that he has reduced his waist by two inches. But the nutritionist stands her ground. No ice cream for you, she insists. In the gym, Ishan upsets strength and conditioning coach Paul Chapman, who snaps: "You're not applying yourself, you're basically being a dickhead." But life goes on for the 19-year-old, who beats Aditya Tare, ten years his senior, to the wicket-keeper's slot in the MI starting eleven despite the batting coach rooting for the senior player.
Younger than most of the players in his charge is the team manager, Akash Ambani, whose enthusiasm for the job rubs off on the others. "Auction time is the worst time of the year," he confesses before heading to the crucial bidding process in. He reveals that always wears something red to the auction: in 2017, it was a watch, this year it's the socks. Happy with the talent he has acquired to complement the core of the team - Rohit, Hardik, Jasprit - he says he has never seen MI with so many new faces.
If there is anything that the series lacks, it is got be the limited play that the city of Mumbai, the Mecca of Indian cricket, gets. But with the dramatic ups and downs in a team's progress through the world's most lucrative cricket tournament constituting the crux of the action, Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians has no dearth of delights and surprises.