Have you ever looked at a Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) squad and scrolled past it indifferently? Every April, as the Indian Premier League rolls into town along with the Indian summer, fans and pundits look at the RCB team and predict good performances resulting in a definite playoff spot. Every May, the same fans and pundits end up shaking their heads in disbelief.
Between 2012 and 2019, over eight editions of the IPL, RCB have two playoff appearances to show for. Since the 2016 season, when the Virat Kohli-AB de Villiers partnership peaked and carried them to the final, they have finished eighth, sixth and eighth in a competition of eight teams.
This is a report card that betrays the talent and class of cricketers who have worn the RCB red. Along with the top-order nexus of Chris Gayle, De Villiers, and Kohli, RCB have, at different times over the last five years, fielded Quinton de Kock, Brendon McCullum, Marcus Stoinis, Tim Southee, and Mitchell Starc. These are the kind of names that are picked in the first few rounds of a fantasy draft.
The challenge with a draft, however, is to pick a balanced team with strong performers across the board, and RCB have often erred on that front. They spent such amounts of money and energy on their spearheads that they didn’t have the kind of support cast that shapes a consistent, successful team. The yearly chopping and changing hasn’t helped either. Balance and stability are two major pillars of a good team, and the lack of strength in one has resulted in the lack of planning for the other.
Last season, Royal Challengers Bangalore lost seven out of their first eight matches. At a time when most teams contending for a playoff spot were beginning to ascend, RCB were barely finding their footing. The faint ray of hope generated from wins in their next three matches was quickly shut out by a defeat against Delhi Capitals. A batting order that found different ways to come short and a bowling lineup that was just far too expensive, they almost let MS Dhoni chase down 28 in the last over at M Chinnaswamy.
In light of their sorry recent history, hiring former New Zealand coach Mike Hesson as Director of Cricket could turn out to be their most important move ahead of IPL 2020. Hesson, who guided New Zealand to their first World Cup final appearance in 2015 and built the framework for a repeat in 2019, made his name as an astute judge of talent. It fits almost seamlessly into RCB’s biggest mission ahead of the auction and next summer’s IPL – build a strong and sustainable team around Kohli and de Villiers.
At a press conference, Hesson spoke about the importance of smart recruitment. “There will be a big focus on recruitment. Once the auction gets completed, the work starts then, not a week before the tournament starts. We would have clarity in the roles we want the players to perform.”
This autumn, Hesson spent a lot of time in Surat, Gujarat, watching India’s domestic T20 tournament, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. “During Vijay Hazare and Mushtaq Ali Trophy, we would like to see players we want to fit in. It’s more about finding out how players build context around performance, conditions and pressure situations.”
A lot of Hesson’s attention has been drawn towards Devdutt Padikkal, a name that is now on the lips of everyone interested in Indian cricket. The 19-year-old left-hander, playing in a Karnataka team with established international batsmen like KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, and Manish Pandey, was the highest run-scorer in both the Vijay Hazare (50 over) and Syed Mushtaq Ali tournaments. At the Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he scored 580 runs at a remarkable average of 64.44 and a strike-rate of 175.
IPL 2020 Trade window
Players released: Marcus Stoinis, Shimron Hetymer, Akshdeep Nath, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Colin De Grandhomme, Prayas Ray Barman, Tim Southee, Kulwant Khejroliya, Himmat Singh, Heinrich Klaasen, Chama Milind, Dale Steyn.
How they shape up: Rs 27.9 cr available, twelve slots to fill (six overseas).
In a major cleanout last month, Royal Challengers Bangalore released as many as 12 players, including Shimron Hetmyer, Marcus Stoinis, and Colin de Grandhomme. RCB pinned a lot of hopes on Hetmyer last season and will be disappointed with how he could never really find his form. When someone like Hetmyer gets going, as he did in their last league game, he propels the whole team forward. If Hetmyer can hit some sort of groove in the current series against India, Hesson will be tempted to at least look at him as a middle-order option, given they have six overseas slots to fill.
The team management seems to have a lot of faith in Shivam Dube, and given his attributes, it is understandable why they let go of similar all-rounders in Stoinis and De Grandhomme. Washington Sundar and Moeen Ali have been retained too, so Hesson may be looking to build the lower-order all-round core around those three.
The 12 available slots open up enough space for Hesson to rebuild the entire team one year before the 2021 auction, where many currently retained players – across all teams – will be placed for auction again.
Major holes to plug
A big chunk of their spending at December's auction will have to be on top and middle-order batting. Their recent releases mean that only four main batsmen – Kohli, AB, Padikkal, and Parthiv remain on their roster. The middle-order has been RCB’s biggest aching joint over the years, and their two match-winners in Kohli and de Villiers often bat with the pressure of finding very little backup if they get out early. RCB will, without doubt, look at both Indian and overseas options, so expect them to chase a lot of experience, because a good middle order will go a long way in stabilising their batting.
Seam bowling is another area RCB need to strengthen. Between Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj, they have a solid Indian core, but the release of Dale Steyn, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Tim Southee have left enough overseas gaps to fill. They will have their eyes on players like Antrich Nortje, Alzarri Joseph, and Beuran Hendricks, all of whom should come at reasonable prices.
The Virat-sized problem
Between now and the beginning of IPL 2020, the RCB team management has its task cut out. They will not only have to set up a team which can support and complement the talents of Virat and AB, but also bring those two back to their best, because, in recent years, they have been slightly below par.
At IPL 2019, Kohli and De Villiers, as is the norm, ended up as the highest run-scorers for RCB, but a deeper look revealed a problem. Between both, they could only muster eight scores above 50 over 27 innings. At the 2018 edition, their aggregate was 10 in 25 innings. Compared to their glorious summer of 2016, when they crossed a half-century 18 times in 32 combined innings, their recent numbers paint a bleak picture given that they are the two batting mainstays of the team. Bending in further with the magnifying glass, there is an even more worrisome statistic that will look new coach Simon Katich in the eye: across the last two seasons, Kohli has crossed fifty a mere seven times in 28 innings.
It isn’t every day that we talk of a Kohli statistic and the numbers don’t put him on top of some mountain. His run aggregates, average, and strike-rate over these two seasons are still very healthy, but healthy, purely in the context of run-making, isn’t enough for Virat. He will know it better than most that 30s and 40s, especially at the strike-rates he operates at, aren’t enough. Simply put, RCB need to find a way for Kohli to become the run-machine that he is for India. If Virat plays well, RCB will too.
On the radar
There is an air around Chris Lynn. Whenever you see him bat, footage of him, wearing blue, tonking sixes for fun at the Gabba play at the back of your mind. Lynn built his reputation as a power hitting opening batsman from his long stint at Brisbane Heat. Lynn was the first batsman in the BBL to hit 100 sixes, and some of them, as captured in this YouTube video, are a sight to behold purely for his bat-speed and power.
That said, Lynn is still only 29 and a change in environment can do him wonders. He likes the Chinnaswamy too. In 2017, Lynn and Sunil Narine took the RCB bowlers for 105 runs in the first six overs, still the record for the highest score in a Powerplay in IPL history. This small, postage stamp of a ground that RCB play their home games at can turn out to be conducive for his explosive batting. Lynn has played a lot of his career as an opener, and along with Padikkal, might just be the kind of foundation that RCB need for Virat and AB to prosper.
The bidding war for Maxwell is one of the most fascinating sights at an IPL auction. His numbers in the IPL are middling at best, disappointing if you consider his stature and ability, but still, year after year, many franchises have spent good money on him just in the hope to see his true self.
Maxwell is returning from a voluntary break from cricket and will be raring to get back to the sport he has often lit up. He is in good form too. The last time he batted in a T20, against Sri Lanka at Adelaide this October, he scored 62 off 28 balls. A veteran of 251 T20s, his ability to change the course of the game in the blink of an eye will not be lost on a team that is desperately looking for match-winners. He is an ODI World Cup winner for Australia, and RCB could use his leadership in a team that has often looked bereft of ideas. This auction, Maxwell’s IPL record and potential price might not align, but he could just be a risk worth taking.
The latest pearl from the grounds of Mumbai is a 17 year-old left-hander who already has a domestic double century. In this October's Vijay Hazare Trophy, Jaiswal opened the batting for Mumbai and scored hundreds against Kerala and Goa within a week, before rounding off his golden run with a 203 against Jharkand. In only the six matches that he played in the tournament, Jaiswal hit 25 sixes, the second highest in the entire tournament. Jaiswal is a certainty to open the batting for India at the Under-19 World Cup in South Africa next year, and between him and Padikkal, RCB could land themselves a really young and dynamic Indian opening partnership, which will also free up overseas slots for other areas.
Keeping with this pattern of left-field choices, Milne is likely to fly under the radar for most IPL franchises. He hasn’t played international or first class cricket in a year, through injuries, but his spell with Kent and performances in this year’s Vitality Blast will encourage Hesson, who has previously worked with him for New Zealand. Milne is an proven T20 bowler with a career average of only 22.32 and economy of 7.65 runs an over across 96 matches.
Death bowling at Chinnaswamy can be a challenge, and with the releases of Steyn and Southee, RCB will desperately be looking at overseas options. Milne will likely not cost RCB much, and if they can land him, he will allow them to rotate between Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini, and Mohammed Siraj.
Given a strong, well-rounded team that is built to excel in different conditions, there is no reason why a lineup with Virat, AB, Moeen and Yuzvendra Chahal should not succeed, but then, Royal Challengers Bangalore will be familiar with a question like this. It is about time they break the pattern and bring success to the Chinnaswamy, much like the Karnataka cricket team have done this year.
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