Virat Kohli paused for a bit and then chuckled away a suggestion that his IPL duck was a minor blot on his legacy. “I don’t care whether I’m going to be judged on this [winning the IPL],” he would later say, ahead of the 2019 season. “I am doing what I am supposed to do. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and we have to be practical about it. No excuses for that. Only acceptance of the faults that we made in the past.”
Kohli, a rare one-team star in a tournament that embraces flux, will begin his eighth season as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore. The last three have seen his team finish last, sixth and last again. If well-meaning voices from the camp are to be believed, this is their year, as assuredly as the previous ones were.
There are grounds for this overt optimism. The texture of the India skipper’s last three RCB campaigns, despite a steady flow of runs from his bat, have been defined by what preceded and followed the IPL. In 2017, he missed the start of the season having picked up a shoulder injury at the end of a gruelling 13-Test home season. The Champions Trophy followed immediately. In 2018, India were in the middle of their crucial overseas Test run, with Kohli keeping one eye on the big England tour and a possible County assignment before it. Last year, the World Cup and workloads hogged his narrative.
There’s a reason why Kohli has admitted to feeling calm entering an IPL season for the first time. By cruel design or otherwise, he has had five months of rest and a rare month of preseason with the squad. Muddled selections or slow starts, the kind of which have seen RCB accumulate a 13-28 win-loss record (one no-result) at the league’s half-way mark over the last six years, will not cut it.
There is already little to fault in a quartet of Kohli, AB de Villiers, Moeen Ali and Yuzvendra Chahal. The eternal search for a player who can straddle the line as a finisher with both bat and ball has now stopped at Chris Morris. The elephant in the room, as ever, is if the rest of the moving parts can create synergy with the cogs.
Over the years, RCB have been more susceptible than most to Hope’s seductions. Even as IPL’s elite – the MIs and the CSKs – recede into the distance, RCB are buoyed by the promise of what a refreshed captain, new management, new personnel and new venues can bring. The squad to end the IPL drought may have been assembled at a cost of INR 78.40 crores but hope comes for free.
Likely XI:Aaron Finch, Devdutt Padikkal/Parthiv Patel, Virat Kohli (c), AB de Villiers, Moeen Ali, Shivam Dube, Chris Morris, Washington Sundar, Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Yuzvendra Chahal
Although Parthiv Patel has done little wrong to merit an axe, if de Villiers dons the keeping gloves as was teased by the franchise on its social channels, it opens up a spot at the top for Devdutt Padikkal. The 20-year-old enjoyed a prolific 2019-20 domestic season, topping the scoring charts in both the white-ball formats. Comfortable against both spin and pace, the Karnataka southpaw has scored at a strike-rate of 175 in his brief T20 career so far and will be worth blooding into the setup. Should the need arise for bowling reassurances, Gurkeerat Singh Mann could replace Moeen as the spin-bowling all-rounder in order to bring in an overseas bowler.Washington Sundar might have a bigger role to play with the ball this time. ©BCCI
What works to their advantage?
If Kohli does return to No.3, he, along with de Villiers, Moeen, Dube and Morris could form the league’s best middle-order. They also have a good mix of left-handers in the line-up to counter the wrist-spin threat. In a tournament that is predicted to be decided in the middle-overs, Moeen offers a significant edge. His strike-rate of 169 between overs 6 and 16 is the best in the league over the last four years.
RCB also have variety in their bowling arsenal to tailor to specific needs. Saini brings pace and death-overs potential while Umesh and Dale Steyn are adept at striking in the in the first six overs. Isuru Udana brings in both a left-arm angle as well as an assortment of cutters for the slow and two-paced wickets. In Chahal and Zampa, the team has two quality wrist spinners while Sundar and Moeen provide effective matchups in the PowerPlay against left-handers. Negi and Shahbaz Ahmed offer the left-arm orthodox variant.
What doesn’t work to their advantage?
The death bowling. RCB have conceded at 11.87 and 10.83 at the death in the last two years – the worst and second-worst in the league. It would appear RCB are pinning all their hopes on their INR 10 cr acquisition. Their punt on him is obviously not misplaced. Morris was the second- highest wicket-taker in death overs in BBL 2019/20 with 13 scalps at a decent economy rate of 8.38. He has also conceded only 8.3 runs an over in the IPL since 2015.
RCB also took only 14 wickets in the PowerPlay in IPL 2019 that often allowed settled batsmen to target the middle-overs and beyond. Curiously, however, Sundar, who bowls for India up top in T20Is has only bowled seven PowerPlay overs for RCB.
Is there an opportunity?
The move away from the Chinnaswamy, which saw an average score of 180 last season, could be a blessing in disguise. Since 2016, considering T20Is involving Pakistan as well as the PSL, Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi have recorded average first innings scores of 150, 152 and 135 respectively. There’s a chance for RCB to attack through the middle with spin and ease the burden on Morris and Saini at the death.