Shimron Hetmyer and Gurukeerat Mann’s stunning rearguard partnership was an inkling of what might have been in Royal Challengers Bangalore’s season of deep despair. The glorious fight back that brought the team from the brink of a humiliating defeat and turned the tables on Sunrisers Hyderabad underscored the potential of the underperforming team.
Agonisingly the tally of 11 points sunk them to the bottom of the table even as SRH with only 12 points qualified for the next phase of IPL.
It was befitting that RCB’s strong suit, its batting, powered by the 144-run fourth wicket partnership in just 89 balls, was the pivotal force behind the victory. In fact it would have been ironic if RCB’s batting unit -- which was in doldrums at 20 for three by the third over -- had packed up. Particularly as its poor death overs bowling and indifferent catching had been yet again responsible for the team’s sorry state of affairs.
Skipper Virat Kohli rightly stated that a couple of victories in the early matches would have made the difference. After all the team finished strongly, registering five wins and shared-points match in its last seven outings. As events later proved, even one win in the front seven would have sufficed for qualification. Surely a case of so near, yet to far.
But RCB’s issues from the start of the season was with their death overs bowling. It was so pedestrian that winning seemed impossible in those early games. In their second match of the season, which they lost by six runs, RCB’s conceded 40 runs in the last three overs with Hardik Pandya slamming a brisk unbeaten 32 (he carved out an unbeaten 37 in the return match too, where MI won by the skin of the teeth).
It was the same story against Rajasthan Royals where RCB lost in the penultimate ball of the match. But their worst showing was in the match against Kolkatta Kinight Riders where the bowlers and fielders contrived to lose a winning match in the space of just 21 deliveries.
RCB were actually calling the shots until Andre Russell walked in and made mincemeat of the bowling attack. He smashed their offerings around the park at a pulsating strike-rate of 369! During the course of blasting seven 7 sixes he drove a panic-stricken Mohammed Siraj into delivering no-balls, wides and ultimately a beamer that forced the umpire to ban him from bowling. RCB fans watched in disbelief as a clueless bowling attack wilted under pressure and lost a match that should have been theirs.
There were other defeats made worse by wides and no-balls at critical times. But in all cases the sum total of the errors was the complete meltdown of fast bowlers, both at the death and during powerplay overs.
Umesh Yadav was not the bowler he was in the last two seasons when he had bagged 20 and 17 wickets at an impressive average. His swing, pace and threat had Kohli utilising all his four overs at the start. This year, his pace was average and swing almost non-existent. Worse he seldom bowled to the fields set.
RCB’s problem was that Yadav and Siraj both flopped simultaneously. Navdeep Saini, the third pacer had his moments. But the inability of the other pacemen, including Tim Southee, to step up dragged him down too.
The non-appearance of Aussie paceman Nathan-Coulter Nile badly affected RCB’s chances in the initial games. His pace, ability, experience and presence would have made a difference in some of the close matches. The bowling unit was left rudderless in his absence.
This could be discerned as soon as his replacement Dale Steyn arrived. He not only led the attack and made in-roads into the opposition top order, but helped RCB register back-to-back wins against two strong teams, KKR and Chennai Super Kings. An unfortunate shoulder injury deprived RCB of his services in the rest of the matches.
It is evident that RCB possess a powerful batting line-up that should hold good for the next season too. Kohli, AB de Villiers, Moeen Ali, Hetmyer, Marcus Stoinis, Parthiv Patel and Mann form a pretty solid batting unit. Additionally, some of the young Indian players, including Akshadeep Nath, should return with greater maturity next year.
It is the bowling, particularly the death overs bowling, that needs considerable attention. Successful teams like Mumbai (Lasith Malinga in the early days, and also now and Jasprit Bumrah), CSK (Dwayne Bravo) KKR (Sunil Narine in earlier years) have excellent death overs bowlers. Kagiso Rabada has driven home their utility by changing Delhi Capitals’ fortunes luck with his remarkable work at the death.
RCB needs to work on that aspect of their game. They need at least two overseas fast bowlers whom they can alternate with. Additionally they need to elevate the workload and training on Saini, Siraj and Kulwant Khejroliya to ensure that they could be banked upon in testing times.
Moeen Ali and Yuzvendra Chahal are excellent spin options. Hopefully Washington Sundar could be utilised a lot better. Besides, a better quality left arm spinner than Pawan Negi should be signed up, even if it were from the junior ranks.
Certainly RCB, with their back seven matches performance have shown that they have some serious talent and ability within their fold. However, the fielding, particularly the catching where even stalwarts like Kohli and Stoinis dropped catches, was a let down. But the real culprit was undoubtedly RCB’s pace bowling unit where Siraj and Yadav collapsed under pressure while the others were only marginally better.
Until RCB plugs these gaps the next season would well be more of the same.