Six wins from 14 matches. Worse death bowling stats. Muddled middle-order. Strange pre-auction retention. You get the drift, don’t you? If there’s one team that can pull all of it off in a single season, it has to be Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), whose campaign, once again ended without them qualifying for the playoffs.
While a third-from-bottom finish suggests a performance that has only marginally improved from their last-place result of 2017, it also spawns a suspicion of fundamental ineptness that has consistently seen them punching below their weight for most of their existence.
For far too many seasons, RCB have reneged on their promise and 2018 - with all the freshness that change in personnel ushers in – toed the familiar script of underperformance.
What went wrong?
Pretty much everything and the bungling had started much before crisp collars and sharp suits assembled in Bengaluru’s Ritz-Carlton for the mega auction on the last weekend of January. Sarfaraz Khan, a doubtlessly prodigious age-group cricketer but with little to show for in Twenty20 cricket, was retained pre-auction, and KL Rahul, good enough to score international hundreds in all three formats, was duly dispensed with.
The elegant right-hander was RCB’s third-highest run-getter in 2016 and had missed the 2017 edition due to a shoulder injury after acing the tough home series against Australia earlier that year. Letting him go was a surprise, and the fact that RCB didn’t once bid for him in auction confirmed that they were certain to look beyond him, which was a surprise, considering his well-documented talent to score quickly and correctly.
Rahul triggered a fierce bidding war between Mumbai Indians, Rajasthan Royals, Sunrisers Hyderabad, and Kings XI Punjab, and was ultimately taken by Punjab at 5.5 times his base price of Rs. 2 crore. He justified his price with 659 runs from 14 matches, ending IPL 2018 as third-highest scorer.
That apart, RCB had a formidable squad – on paper, at least – and with Chris Woakes, Umesh Yadav, Tim Southee and Nathan Coulter-Nile in their ranks, one was impressed with their fast-bowling arsenal. Though Coulter-Nile was ruled out because of injury before the start of IPL, they still looked good in the pace department. In Yuzvendra Chahal, Murugan Ashwin, and Washington Sundar, they had a potent spin attack too, while Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Mandeep Singh looked set to shore up batting.
However, bowling once again proved to be their undoing. Their bowlers, with the exception of Umesh Yadav – whose 20 wickets made him this season’s second-highest wicket-taker – were found wanting under the relentless assault of increasingly daring batsmen, and the unit completely crumbled in death overs. Nothing illustrates RCB’s death-bowling woes better than their failed defence of 205 runs against Chennai Super Kings (CSK). After being in command for 14 overs of CSK innings, RCB conceded 80 in last six overs as MS Dhoni and Ambati Rayudu’s stunning six-hitting assault sank their defence and morale.
Apart from death-bowling, RCB’s middle-order failed to fire in IPL 2018. With the exception of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, and some timely cameos from Mandeep Singh, no batsman made a lasting impact. In their last must-win game against Rajasthan Royals, RCB lost seven wickets for 33 runs and lost by 30 runs — this after being 75/1 at one stage.
Turning point of the season
For a team that could never really get on a roll, the turning point has to be their most morale-shattering loss, and that, in this writer’s opinion, was the match against CSK. It was a game where RCB’s batting artillery boomed in all its murderous glory — Quinton de Kock hit 37-ball 53, AB de Villiers hit eight sixes en route his 30-ball 68, and Mandeep Singh’s 32 came off 17 balls. RCB racked up 205/8 and reduced CSK to 74/4 at the end of the ninth over.
However, a combination of calculated CSK assault — orchestrated by the seasoned Dhoni and an in-form Rayudu, sloppy fielding and ordinary bowling ensured the visitors were let off the hook. A 101-run partnership killed the game for CSK, and the 15 sixes that Rayudu-Dhoni hit broke the back of RCB attack.
By the time Rayudu fell to a Umesh Yadav throw — who had earlier dropped him — the chase was all but sealed. It was CSK’s biggest run chase in 11 years of IPL, and while it took a sterling effort from Dhoni and Rayudu to make it happen, the contribution of RCB’s toothless attack can’t be ignored.
Kohli admitted RCB’s bowling was “just not acceptable”; pity that his bowlers did precious little course correction thereafter.
Hits and Flops
Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers form the core of RCB, and the trio did its best to keep team’s playoff chances alive till the last day of the league phase.
Skipper Kohli continued to be team’s batting mainstay with 530 runs, while De Villiers ended as RCB’s second-highest scorer with 480 runs. The duo occupies the sixth and eighth spots respectively on the overall standings at the end of the league phase. The gulf between them and the rest of the RCB batsmen is exemplified by the fact that the third-highest scorer for RCB, Mandeep Singh, sits on the 29th spot of this season’s top run-getters’ list.
Apart from these three, the batting was a disappointment and on more than one occasions, the middle-order imploded. The likes of Colin de Grandhomme and Moeen Ali shone in patches, but a definitive, match-turning performance never arrived. Corey Anderson was another overseas player who failed to deliver. Brought in as a replacement for injured Nathan Coulter-Nile, the Kiwi all-rounder was a comprehensive failure with both bat and ball. He took three wickets from as many matches at an economy of over 13 runs per over, and his death-bowling left a lot to be desired. His three innings yielded 17 runs at a strike-rate of 77.27.
Among the Indian buys, the biggest let-down was Washington Sundar. This was the Tamil Nadu all-rounder’s big chance to make an impression after a successful gig at Tamil Nadu Premier League and a reasonably good India stint. He scored only 65 runs from 7 matches and picked just four wickets at an economy of 9.60. Sundar’s forgettable season sent RCB’s team combination in a tailspin, and the lack of a reliable middle-order batsman showed up more than once.
What next for them?
It would be too early to advocate wholesale changes in their squad, but letting go of Rahul was a mistake that could have been avoided. RCB need to find a decent middle-order batsman who can fire consistently. Mandeep Singh has shown promise and must be persisted with.
Quinton de Kock scored 201 runs from eight matches, and was only their fourth batsman to cross the 200-run mark. He was neat behind the stumps and showed sporadic brilliance with the bat. However, his value to the team must also be judged in terms of the balance he renders to the team. In him and Parthiv Patel, RCB have two aggressive wicketkeeper-batsmen who can capitalise on the Powerplay overs.
The biggest change RCB must bring in is to give more thought to their team selections. Sarfaraz Khan and Pawan Negi did little to justify Kohli’s faith, and continued non-selection of talented Navdeep Saini belies conventional wisdom. More than anything else though, RCB would do well to believe they can defend totals. Throughout the IPL 2018, Kohli never sounded confident of his bowlers, who did little to change their skipper’s scepticism. They discovered Umesh Yadav’s utility with new ball; it’s time they find someone who can do the trick with the older one.