Bangalore back on track after sluggish start
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, goes the idiom. Given their success in past seasons, and the presence of high-profile local stars in their ranks, Royal Challengers Bangalore's 'build from scratch' approach to the 2011 IPL auction came as a surprise. They retained Virat Kohli, but let all their other stars go. Four games into their campaign, that move seemed to have backfired spectacularly, as they slumped to three successive losses after a hard-fought win in the opening game. Yet, thanks to the resilience in their ranks, they have managed to turn their season so far into a tale of two halves. Their resurgence, built on the back of three successive wins, has been just as comprehensive as the shambles that preceded it.
Coach Ray Jennings has maintained his equanimity through the highs and lows, and says the sweeping changes to the combination made the sluggish beginning almost inevitable. "Starting off with just one retained player, it took a while to find the right combination," Jennings told ESPNcricinfo. "That was one of the reasons for the slow start. Zaheer Khan coming out of World Cup, being mentally fatigued and not bowling as well as he could initially, was another issue."
Though Bangalore released their big names into the auction pool, Jennings revealed that they had done so with the intention of buying them back. "During the auction process, it was difficult to say if we would be able to fight the prices of players like Rahul Dravid and Robin Uthappa once they crossed a certain amount of money. We felt we can't afford that, given the holistic view of the team, and it wouldn't fit into the balance. Kolkata bought two players for half their budget - I don't think that's a wise thing either."
The biggest change, though, came right at the top, with Daniel Vettori taking over the reins from Anil Kumble. Jennings wanted Kumble to continue playing, forming a potentially formidable spin and leadership association with Vettori. "With the skills he has, Kumble can play until he is 50," Jennings said. "But it was his decision to stop and I have to respect that. Vettori is a world-class bowler, and very different to Kumble. Having both of them on the field, as captain and vice-captain, would have been superb."
Jennings disagreed that Vettori was a more defensive captain than Kumble, saying his leadership style in the IPL was moulded by the resources he had at his disposal, especially on the bowling front. Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Vinay Kumar had formed an incisive and varied seam attack last year, but this time the responsibility has fallen on youngsters Abhimanyu Mithun and S Aravind. Jennings is acutely aware of the weakness on that front, and expects more out of part-timers like Kohli.
"Kohli underestimates his skill as a bowler," Jennings said. "He is a lazy bowler. He doesn't realise his potential at it, or work hard enough. Especially in ODI cricket, he can create a new dimension and add value. Hopefully he's going to recognise that later on down the line."
Jennings is pleased with the way Zaheer has stepped up after an indifferent start to the season. "With Zaheer, the skill was always there, but the mind was a little tired after carrying India through the World Cup, and understandably so. Mithun and Aravind are inexperienced players, still learning about the IPL. Zaheer bowls in critical periods, and has been world-class in the last couple of games. We have played on batsman-friendly wickets, even in Kochi and Delhi, which have now become slow and low. I don't look at the stats, I see where the ball is landing, and Zaheer has got it in the right areas."
His equation with Zaheer reveals a crucial insight into his coaching methodology. "It was important that Zaheer became a father figure to the youngsters. I get him to stand at mid-on and speak to the bowlers, like he does for India, but initially he wasn't accustomed to doing that in a new environment. It took time for me to educate him about the expectations we have from him."
So, when Zaheer walked out at No. 3 in the game against Deccan Chargers - a move that has been roundly criticised since - it wasn't a reckless gamble, but a planned gambit, Jennings says, to convey those expectations to Zaheer. "I needed Zaheer to understand he is a senior player, and promoting him was a motivational move to make him realise that he can be called upon as a pinch-hitter. His dismissal [for a three-ball duck] had no impact on the game - AB de Villiers faced seven balls and got a nought, but no one said anything about that. I am a believer that senior players must understand that I am going to be backing them. Dilshan was out of form and Mayank Agarwal is inexperienced - I was looking for an impact player who could kick-start the chase."
Next, the impact player arrived, and how. Chris Gayle announced himself with a brutal century against Kolkata, and Bangalore haven't lost a game since. Bangalore's environment has given Gayle the freedom to express himself, and he has responded with a vigour rarely seen in his recent games for West Indies.
Another player who has flourished under Jennings' watch is Kohli, who has risen above the 'angry brat' stereotype in the last two years. Jennings has monitored Kohli closely since his Under-19 days, and takes pride in his development as Bangalore's middle-order bulwark this season. "I have always said Kohli can be a captain, but he needs to grow up with a good structure of people around him," Jennings said. "MS Dhoni is a very laidback guy, but Kohli is a fiery guy which is good in situations and bad at times. You can't change that, it is a part of the person.
"As a batsman, I think Kohli is going to be India's next Sachin or Sehwag. He's got the amazing ability to change his batting to the speed of the game. We saw that in his knock against Delhi, where the timing and speed of his hands were spectacular, on a pitch where everyone else struggled. A lot of bowlers around the world are going to retire early when they see the way Kohli grows."
Bangalore's progress into the play-offs could hinge on how seamlessly they replace the England-bound Tillakaratne Dilshan at the top, but Jennings is happy with the options he has. "Rilee Rossouw, Jonathan Vandiar, Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohammad Kaif or Saurabh Tiwary could open," Jennings said. "I am not too concerned, especially since Dilshan hasn't performed; we can only move the process forward. Vandiar sparkled in the Champions League, and Roussouw is probably South Africa's next big player, as well as the best fielder currently in the country. There is also Tiwary, who has so far struggled for opportunities since Kohli and AB have played a lot of balls. He could be the one moving up."
A week is a long time in the IPL, and Bangalore have had that long a break since their game against Pune Warriors. Jennings knows the interval can be a double-edged sword, and will work hard towards refocusing his men on the task at hand when they play against Kings XI Punjab on Friday.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo