The Royal Challengers Bangalore have really tested the loyalty of their fans of late. “We know you will support us when we are playing well, but will you support us when we play badly? Will you turn up at the stadium when we just don’t turn up on the field?”
On paper, Bangalore have a good side but they just have not been translating that into good results for 3 years now. They were nearly out of contention for the playoffs after just 9 games of the 2019 season. And finished the season at the very bottom, with just 5 wins from 14 games. It has been a dramatic fall for RCB since the the finals of 2016. In fact between, 2009 and 2016, RCB made the semi finals/ play offs 5 times and were runners-up 3 times. During this period, many felt that an RCB title win was inevitable. In 2019, along with KIXP and Delhi, they remain the only team from the original 8 never to have won the tournament.
A poor start
Bought by Liquor Baron Vijay Mallya, Royal Challengers Bangalore assembled a strong team full of international stars like Dravid, Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Misbah-ul-Haq. They also bought the then India U19 WC winning captain Virat Kohli. The team had a poor first season, never quite recovering from the utter thrashing Brendon Mccullum gave them in the first ever IPL match. That poor season led to the owner publicly criticizing captain Rahul Dravid on his team selection and sacking the CEO of the team Charu Sharma. The chief cricketing officer of the team Martin Crowe also resigned. All in all, 2008 was a season to forget for the team.
Turn around in team fortunes and the start of a rise
Before the 2009 season, RCB bought star player Kevin Pietersen at the auction and named him captain of the team. The tournament did not begin well for the team. They lost 4 of their first 6 matches. Pietersen left for England duties at that point and Anil Kumble took over. Remarkably, RCB went on to win 6 of their remaining 8 matches to finish third on the table and qualify for the Semi finals. They beat CSK in the Semis but lost to DC by 6 runs in a thrilling final. They also qualified for the Champions League T20 series. Kumble led the side in 2010 as well, and the team finished 4th in the league stages but were knocked out by MI in the playoffs. Kumble retired after the 2010 campaign and the team went into the mega auction of 2011 retaining just one player – a youngster named Virat Kohli - even though Kallis was the top scorer for the team through 2009 and 2010.
Of Kohli, Gayle and ABD – RCB, the perennial contenders
The 2011 auction saw the likes of AB De Villiers, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Daniel Vettori join the squad along with T20 specialists like Dirk Nannes. They also bought Saurabh Tiwary and Zaheer Khan back from Mumbai Indians. An injury to Nannes saw him replaced by Chris Gayle midway during the tournament. The big-hitting West Indian made an immediate impact, scoring a match winning century in his very first match. He scored consistently in the tournament to finish with more than 600 runs, including 2 centuries and fifties. RCB topped the league stage and reached another final, only to be blown away by Dhoni’s men in the fight for the championship.
With the explosive Gayle, the relentless Kohli and shot-a-ball ABD in the side, RCB had three batters who could each win a game on their own. In 2011, and over the next few years, RCB seldom had a match when all three of them failed collectively in the same match. While Gayle was at his peak in 2011-2013, Kohli and ABD also did not go a season scoring less than 300 runs for the next 6 seasons. Their consistency and explosiveness was the bedrock of the team’s success. Yet, even with the big three in the team, RCB struggled on many occasions to get support from the others in the side. They finished 5th in 2012, only losing out to CSK in making the playoffs due to Net Run Rate. In spite of winning 9 of 16 matches in 2013, they could only finish 5th on the table. They finished 3rd in 2015 but once again failed to make the finals.
In 2016, on the back of the Kohli show, where he scored 973 runs in one IPL season. There was a point in the season when RCB needed to win their last 4 matches to qualify for the finals and they managed on the back of Kohli’s sublime form. RCB made it all the way to the finals but they disappointed yet again, losing to SRH.
By 2016, RCB had made 3 finals in 9 years, which was a better return compared to teams like RR, KIXP, Delhi and SRH. Even KKR have reached only 2 finals (both of which they won). Having reached 3 finals – the team had displayed consistency and won over many a fan. It seemed it was only a matter of time before they would win a title, perhaps the next season, or so the fans thought.
The reason for their Rise… and recipe for their downfall
The exciting batting displayed by the Gayle-Kohli-ABD troika from 2011 ensured that the fans thronged the stadium match after match. If they failed in a match, the crowd would still turn up for the next match, not wanting to miss out on an exciting ‘show’. The team had also come close enough to winning the title, so their flair and style of play gained them many fans who wished for it to finally win one. It helped that in ABD and Kohli they had two of the best batters in the world across formats, and the most destructive T20 batter in Chris Gayle. Kohli soon acquired a mass following across the country, the kind only seen for Tendulkar and Dhoni. The Best batsman in the world plays for RCB, this was enough reason for the citizens to get behind the team. The trio were the only ones retained in the 2014 mega auction. However, the consistency they displayed glossed over some areas of concern.
Over the years RCB, had struggled to restrict teams with an ordinary bowling attack and the consistent display by the ‘three’ had bailed them out more often than not, whether it was setting up a big total or chasing down a big target. Another area of concern was that the team lacked Indian batting talent coming through the ranks. For a while, this seemed to be getting taken care off with KL Rahul having a break out year in 2016 and Sarfaraz Khan coming to the fore as well the same year as an exciting young T20 talent.
Then the unimaginable happened. In 2017, all three -Gayle, Kohli and ABD - had a bad season, none of them managing to score over 300 runs. KL Rahul missed the entire season and other big overseas players like Shane Watson too did not set the field on fire. Their underwhelming bowling attack bled runs that their batting could not chase down. From being finalists in 2016, they finished rank last in 2017. That season was followed by another auction, and this time RCB retained only Kohli, ABD and Sarfaraz Khan. The non-retention of Gayle and KL Rahul caused quite a stir. The team was overhauled with international stars like Moeen Ali, Brendon Mccullum, Chris Woakes, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Quinton de Kock coming in. Indian talent like Mandeep Singh, Washinghton Sundar, Umesh Yadav and Manan Vohra were roped in as well.
The team did seem balanced on paper but injuries and bad form laid them low. The bowling attack lost key members like Coulter-Nile and Woakes to injury while the rest of the bowlers just could not rein the opposition in despite the best efforts of Chahal. While Kohli and ABD had good seasons, they got very little support from the other batsmen. The team finished 6th in 2018.
While the team did bolster the squad by adding players like Marcus Stoinis and Shimron Hetmyer, the additions haven’t counted for much as these players also struggled to get going. The bowling attack continued to be the weakest this year, and that is the reason for the team having won only 5 matches out of their 14 games in 2019. The team looked listless at times and it looks like another squad overhaul maybe in the offing.
Why a fall so steep?
A T20 match can change due to the smallest of mistakes, a batsman dropped off the first ball of an over can score 15-20 runs off the next 5; a no ball can be very costly too and provide momentum to the batting team. The RCB team has been sloppy on all these fronts quite consistently over the last few years.
They also have a few important cogs missing in the team –
Solid openers – once Gayle left, they tried Mccullum and De Kock but team balance and indifferent form did not see them succeed. RCB opened with Parthiv Patel and Virat Kohli (who does so reluctantly, given his natural style that is suited to batting at no. 3.) When you compare this pairing to others in the tournament such as Warner - Bairstow, Gayle - Rahul, Rohit - de Kock and Shaw – Dhawan, one can see that they are not as explosive. With Kohli bogged down by the thought of having to play through the innings, RCB were never too threatening when batting. The attack was blunted right from the get go.
Soft Middle Order and missing Indian batters – the likes of Stoinis and Hetmyer did not fire as expected, leaving Kohli and ABD with a lot to do. ABD and Kohli realized that they had to do all the heavy lifting, and that prevented them from playing their usual free flowing game. RCB also lacked a crucial aspect – support from the Indian talent. Mumbai, in contrast, have the explosive Pandya brothers and young Ishan Kishan; Delhi is built around strong Indian batsmen like Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant; KXIP have Rahul, Mayank Agrawal and Mandeep Singh; KKR have Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik and Nitish Rana. But RCB do not have a big name Indian batter to back up Kohli. This often hurt the team’s balance – with International players as batsmen and all-rounders due to lack of Indian options, the bowling usually consists of young inexperienced Indian bowlers.
Spin Support - Yuzvendra Chahal has been a one-man army for RCB in the spin department. There is no other frontline spinner who has stepped up throughout a 4-over spell. Moeen Ali had his good days but his off days were really off.
Fast bowlers, where art thou?– last year, RCB’s death bowlers like Coulter-Nile and Woakes were laid low due to injuries. Umesh Yadav was good at the start of an innings usually, but does not possess death overs game. Others like Mohammed Siraj have been very poor at the death,leading to the team conceding too many runs in the last 4-5 overs consistently. In 2019, RCB’s death overs woes were painful to watch – their economy rate in the death overs this year was 11.85!
Despite the shellacking they’ve received for 3 consecutive years now, RCB aren’t a terrible side. in Kohli, ABD, Moeen Ali, Chahal and Stoinis they have 5 players who could walk into any T20 side. In Umesh Yadav, they have a very good opening bowler. To turn their fortunes around, RCB desperately need a couple of good death over bowlers and a quality back up spinner. If those fall into place, the Royal Challengers could well become contenders again. There’s only so much Kohli or ABD can do single-handedly.
RCB is a big team, with the best batsman in the world and a loyal fan base that has stuck with them through the troughs. But they won’t win a title because people feel they deserve to win it. They reached a high in 2016 and have struggled since. It remains to be seen what the next few years hold for this team. Next year could well decide the fate of the franchise.
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