(Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore is the only team to not have won a single contest this IPL season. They have lost six straight matches and need a miracle to make it to the knockout stage. RCB needs to win all their remaining eight matches to salvage any hope of making it to the Play-offs.)
More than any other format in cricket, Twenty20 is premised on the superiority of the batsman over the bowler. Even the most-skilled practitioner with the ball gets merely 24 deliveries to have a say on the match. But if a destructive batsman is present for 120 balls, you would bet that his team will go on to win the game.
Royal Challengers Bangalore is a team built on this imbalance. It's not that skipper Virat Kohli and the team management are not aware of the various ways in which a successful T20 team could be composed. Rather, it is their insuperable belief that might with the willow will deliver the loudest blow.
It is an approach that has worked for RCB in the past, most notably in 2016 when the franchise reached the Indian Premier League final. Since then, however, the Virat Kohli-led side has won only nine of its 34 matches. This season, RCB has already emulated the worst ever start to an IPL campaign by losing its first six matches. Any hopes of making the playoffs are extinguished before the tournament even reaches its halfway point.
But even before one looks at RCB’s strategic failures, an assessment of fundamental failings must be done. The franchise has dropped 14 catches, bowled six no-balls and misfielded or overthrown the ball 17 times this season, according to ESPNCricinfo. No other team has performed worse on these counts in the ongoing IPL.
But it is the manner of RCB’s defeats that tell the story of a top-heavy batting unit creaking under pressure. In past campaigns, the team from Bengaluru has been able to call upon the likes of Chris Gayle, Quinton de Kock, and KL Rahul at the top. But this time around, Kohli is partnered by the relatively sedate Parthiv Patel at the top. This means that RCB is heavily reliant on Kohli and AB de Villiers, at three, to power the side to huge totals.
The pair worked their magic against Kolkata Knight Riders last week, only for Andre Russell to snatch the game away with a performance of power hitting that is beyond even the redoubtable RCB duo. But when Kohli and de Villiers flopped, their team was shot out for merely 70 and 113 this season. And on slower tracks, RCB has struggled to accelerate – its scores of 158 (vs Rajasthan Royals) and 149 (vs Delhi Capitals) were woefully inadequate.
The differing manner of defeats shows that the franchise no longer possesses the strongest batting line-up in the tournament, which was the case in the past, and is yet to graduate to a more equitable balance in its team composition. With de Villiers a bit rusty following his retirement from international cricket, the onus on Virat Kohli is greater than before. On their day, Marcus Stoinis and Moeen Ali could be destructive but they are yet to demonstrate an ability to repeat such displays frequently.
Acutely aware of the responsibility on his shoulders, Kohli has played some peculiar knocks in this IPL. Against Royals, the Indian skipper managed only 23 runs off 25 balls. And on Sunday in the home game versus the Capitals, Kohli accrued a slightly better 41 off 33 balls. Both knocks were played by him at a slower rate than usual. After the defeat to Capitals, Kohli explained it by pointing to the absence of any senior batsman in the side (barring de Villiers). The skipper must protect his wicket so that he can capitalise on the death overs.
But when the situation does not go to plan, RCB is faced with muddled scenarios. On Sunday against the Capitals, Kohli had a strike rate below 100 after 16 overs. Through his batting, the captain is desperate to bridge the many gaps that appear within his team. However, the pressure can overwhelm even the best of cricketers. As RCB will do well to recognise, the problem is not Kohli’s numbers, or even those of de Villiers. The current rut is a consequence of an imbalanced team that spent Rs 28 crore on its two most senior batsmen, leaving only Rs 52 crore for the rest of the squad.
This strategic move left RCB with a side that does not feel comfortable defending even 200-plus totals – since the start of last season, the Bengaluru franchise has failed to do so against CSK and KKR. Kohli’s acumen as a captain does not inspire much confidence either. It is well-documented that he is prone to miss the odd trick on the tactical front as the India skipper. We found another instance of this failing when KKR gunned down 206 as off-spinner Moeen Ali remained unused on a track that offered considerable turn.
With the ongoing campaign already shorn of life for RCB, it has been suggested that Kohli should take a break ahead of the World Cup. The current run seems to have affected his competitive zeal, an unprecedented situation that will worry people outside the franchise as well. The RCB mess does need sorting but the rot runs so deep that it will take at least one auction to make things better. Before the inevitable surgery follows, Kohli and others involved with the team must make their peace with the predicament.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate