Settled teams do not wring in six changes to their playing eleven. Sure these are early days and Royal Challengers Bangalore were playing only their third match of the IPL season. But making sweeping changes, like they did for the match against Mumbai Indians on Wednesday, could only mean one of two things: Either the team was still unsure of its best combination, or it was pressing the panic button after that unexpected home loss against Delhi Daredevils.
Neither reason bodes well for the team, as was reflected in the final outcome of the match. Neither the batting nor the bowling covered itself with glory, a strange upshot considering that batting was hailed as RCB's strong suit this season.
The turmoil within the RCB think-tank was apparent even before the start of play when they hit their team for a six: Travis Head coming in for Chris Gayle, who was away in Jamaica following the birth of his daughter, wicketkeeper-batsman KL Rahul for Kedar Jadav, left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdullah for leg spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, paceman Varun Aaron for off-spinner Pervez Rasool, paceman Kane Richardson for all-rounder David Wisse and all-rounder Stuart Binny for paceman Sreenath Aravind.
These changes suggest that RCB opted to strengthen their batting and fast bowling departments, probably taking into account the small Wankhede Stadium ground, where spinners could be a liability.
But the real blow on Wednesday night was the RCB batsmen's inability to make much headway on a relatively sluggish pitch. Barring the initial phase of the innings when a hard and shiny new ball came nicely onto the bat and favoured strokeplay, the ball would grip the surface and made things difficult for the batsmen.
But then again, RCB should have taken this into account ahead of such an important match. Given the array of dazzling strokemakers in their line-up, it was always going to be unlikely that opponents would provide them with tracks favouring players like Gayle (though he didn't play on Wednesday), de Villiers, Kohli and Watson.
It was Mumbai's game plan that fell splendidly into place, right from winning the toss and opting to chase. When the ball was new and shiny, they got Tim Southee to move it around disconcertingly. Later, Jasprit Bumrah and Krunal Pandya found a wonderfully ally in the pitch and struck crucial blows. Pandya's double strike in the 11th over was a case in point and it completely altered the course of the game.
The left-arm spinner got the ball to grip the surface and played havoc with Kohli's timing when he went for a lofted drive. He mishit and was caught at long-off. The delivery to de Villiers was even better. It gripped and turned to leave the master batsman stranded outside his crease.
The consolation for RCB was the impressive debut made by young Australian left-hander Travis Head. He took a while to get used to the sluggishness of the pitch, but accelerated soon after with some powerful hits, before being run out for 37 (24b, 2x4, 2x6). His 63-run partnership with Sarfaraz (28, 18b, 2x4, 2x6) was the saving grace of RCB's innings.
But a total of 170 was simply not enough considering that the only strategy that RCB had to dismiss Keiron Pollard was to bang the ball in short and expect him to get caught in the deep. While Pollard does have an issue with short-pitched deliveries and is thus targeted in T20 matches around the world, neither the Wankhede pitch nor the small outfield were conducive for such a strategy. However, Watson, Robinson and even Harshal Patel ignored the prognosis and tried to bounce him out of the way. Pollard, well aware of what was coming at him, flayed at the deliveries with power and purpose, scoring 39 off 19 balls (4x4, 3x6) to hasten the victory.
The real problem with RCB's attack is they do not have a go-to bowler who can either stem the flow of runs or fetch wickets. Mitchell Starc or Samuel Badree could have played that role. But without them, the bowling is without a rallying point. The only option is for the RCB batsmen to put daylight between them and the opponents.
It happened in the first match, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, the only instance thus far in this year's IPL where a team batting first has gone on to win the match. Unless the RCB batsmen replicate that performance, and quickly at that, the aura that surrounds this team could disappear all too soon.