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Royal Challengers Bangalore: Season Review

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Virat_Kohli_India_cricket_Royal_Challengers_Bangalore_RCB_IPLRoyal Challengers Bangalore: Season Review

Position: 3rd (Lost in Qualifier 2)

Played 16, Won 8, Lost 6, NR 2

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RCB have yet again come close to winning the IPL, and have yet again fallen just short. However, while they failed to win that elusive first title, this was perhaps the closest they've been to a championship winning team and with a couple of tweaks they could head into next season as one of the favourites.

It is too simplistic to look back upon the arrival of Mitchell Starc as the moment RCB’s season turned from promising to exciting. While they did hit an exceptional run of form just as Starc arrived, bowling coach Allan Donald, speaking pitch-side during RCB’s first deeply impressive win of the season against RR, hinted at a team-meeting of introspection and honesty following three heavy defeats that more realistically represented the fulcrum of their fortunes. RCB went on to win five of their next seven matches following the meeting, and not only because of Starc’s presence. Captain Virat Kohli looked like a man on a mission for most of the season and there was a purpose and intensity to RCB’s cricket that has been conspicuous by its absence in seasons gone by.

Perhaps tellingly, it was the players sandwiched by the star-quality of Chris Gayle, Kohli and AB de Villiers and the top of the order, and Starc at the bottom, that can be seen to have elevated RCB from title hopefuls to genuine title challengers. That is not to say RCB’s awesome foursome didn’t play a hugely significant part in RCB’s success; it was that they couldn’t have done it alone.

 

Crucially, the management deserve a huge amount of credit for finally making sense of their embarrassment of riches to establish a clearly defined strategy in which players knew their roles and were given the time and space to become accustomed to them.

RCB are an unusual case in that three of their four overseas selections are made for them: Gayle, de Villiers and Starc are three of the best players in the world, and simply demand selection. In that sense RCB build from the top down, knowing what they’ve got with their overseas players and looking to plug the gaps with Indians, rather than the other way around. This season that job was made easier by the bold, if perhaps overdue decision, to bat Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers in the top three. What this did is ensure that RCB’s best players would face the most balls, and although it made RCB vulnerable to an excellent new ball spell or a top order batting collapse, it gave clear and defined roles and responsibilities to those in the middle-order who would otherwise have been confused and disorientated by continually shifting up and down to accommodate a floating de Villiers. There is much to be said for firmness of decision-making and clarity of thought. Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers scored over 1500 runs combined.

The presence of Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers at the top of the order meant Dinesh Karthik, Mandeep Singh and youngster Sarfaraz Khan had clear roles that they became accustomed to. RCB would’ve hoped that in promoting de Villiers, former Indian international Karthik could’ve acted as a second line of defence in the middle-order; a player with experience and versatility to dig RCB out of any holes they may find themselves in. As it was Karthik averaged just 12.81 this season and it was left to Mandeep and Sarfaraz to play a couple of excellent innings to haul RCB from positions of mediocrity to positions of strength. Even then, it is hard to deny that RCB’s biggest weakness this season was their middle-order. And to an extent, having promoted de Villiers, that was to be expected. But the failure of Karthik, who cost RCB Rs. 10.5 crore at auction, significantly eating into their auction budget, made the situation worse than it could’ve been.

Perhaps the most interesting selection of RCB’s season was that of David Wiese, who forced Darren Sammy out of the playing eleven after a couple of matches. Wiese, a versatile, understated cricketer was not a particularly RCB-style selection, but perhaps therein lies the nub of RCB’s season. In selecting Wiese, RCB were putting substance over style, and in a league defined by glamour and showmanship, pragmatism and realism go a long way.

Runs, although not guaranteed, were unlikely to be a problem for RCB this season. With a front-loading strategy and clarity of roles the batsmen did their job well. The most pivotal aspect of RCB’s success, therefore, was their bowling, historically their weak suit, RCB’s bowling was obviously boosted and led well by Starc, but crucially it was reinforced by the uncapped Indian trio of Harshal Patel, Sreenath Arvind and Yuzvendra Chahal who took 48 wickets between them. Chahal in particular was hugely impressive for the second season running, showing courage and bravery to continue to bowl attacking lengths and lines; the list of players he has dismissed in the IPL is now littered with former and current international players of the highest calibre. A little like KXIP last season with Sandeep Sharma, Rishi Dhawan and Axar Patel, RCB were bolstered by bowlers from whom people expected very little.

It did take a while for RCB to settle on a winning combination. Their first four matches were defined by worries as to the fitness of Starc and Adam Milne—who was later ruled out of the season—and a continual shuffling of their fourth overseas slot, giving Sean Abbott and Sammy matches before settling on Wiese. Later in the season, Gayle was rested for Nic Maddinson, but generally from around the fifth game onwards, RCB remained notably settled and had success as a result.

RCB’s defeat in Qualifier 2 clearly illustrated the two areas that should be of the most concern heading forward. A top-order collapse exposed a weak middle-order yet again and the lack of a second, even part-time spinner, meant defending a below-par total on a dry, turning wicket was always going to be difficult.

Given Karthik’s consistently poor form it was a surprise RCB didn’t give reserve wicket-keeper Mavinder Bisla a run in the team. Bisla is an underrated batsman and a decent gloveman. Seeing as Karthik eats up so much of RCB’s auction purse and they have Bisla as a decent replacement keeper, RCB should seriously consider releasing Karthik—perhaps looking to buy him back at a cheaper price—and look to spend the money on a quality Indian middle-order batsman. Someone like Manish Pandey, for example, who used to play for RCB and has suffered a below-par season at KKR. RCB will hope that Mandeep and Sarfaraz can build on the promise of this season but they mustn’t rely on them doing so. RCB need some more depth in the middle-order.

As for the spinner, looking back it is amazing that RCB went into this season with Chahal and relatively untested spinners Iqbal Abdulla and Jalaj Saxena as their only real options. Given that Chahal bowled so well they kind of got away with it, but it was apt that their absence of a second front-line spin bowler ultimately led to their downfall in Qualifier 2. It’s madness to have just one genuine spinning option for a league played in India. Elsewhere, although Wiese was an excellent selection, RCB should look at a second all-rounder, perhaps someone who can be relied on to clear the ropes regularly and consistently at the death; a Ben Stokes or Angelo Matthews perhaps. Signing an Indian fast bowler, someone to lead the attack in Starc’s absence, would also be worthwhile. 

In the past, when RCB have failed at the Play Off stage they have done so playing patchy cricket; cricket led by individual performances and star-quality. Their strong season this year had more to it than that. It was coherent and as deep as it was broad. They were unfortunate too that their final league-stage match against DD was rained off - had they won it they’d have finished second in the league-stage and played CSK in Qualifier 1 at the Wankhede, not, as they eventually did, in Ranchi. This is perhaps the strongest and most well-rounded RCB squad ever, and they are just a couple of players short of an IPL-winning squad. The future should, with some sensible signings, be bright.



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Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist @fwildecricket....

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