On May 11, Royal Challengers Bangalore were beaten at home by Mumbai Indians. Virat Kohli was candid about the path ahead. "We're literally playing the knockouts now," he said then. "You can't relax in this situation, you literally have to win every game from here. It's going to take a lot of character."
Two weeks later, Royal Challengers became the first finalist of IPL 2016 when they beat Gujarat Lions at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Qualifier 1. Kohli's men have not just shown character, but a winning mentality that has put them in the pole position even before the second finalist has been decided.
There is no harm repeating this: Royal Challengers won just two of their first seven matches. They have won seven out of eight games since. Virat Kohli (5), AB de Villiers (4) and Shane Watson have (1) have accumulated 10 Man-of-the-Match awards, the most by any team this IPL.
"In our heads, we have already won [the IPL]," KL Rahul said at an informal media briefing, two days ahead of the final. "To come back from where we were and be in the top-two is a big achievement in itself. And the confidence we have in the team is sky-high."
There was no trace of arrogance in Rahul's statement. Usually, when at the cusp of something this big, players, captains and coaches play defensive. They warn themselves of the 'what if' scenario and prefer keeping quiet. But Kohli's men have not shied away from being bold. After all, the team's motto has been to 'Play Bold'.
Playing his second season for the Royal Challengers, Rahul is the team's third-highest run-maker behind you-know-the-two. In his first stint, in 2013, Rahul batted just twice in five matches. He played for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the previous two seasons, but failed to make a telling statement.
In 25 IPL matches before this season, Rahul had no fifty. This year, Rahul has four fifties, the first three being consecutive ones. He has the best strike rate (147.32) and average (48.25) among all wicketkeepers in the tournament. He is the first Royal Challengers glovesman to score 300-plus runs in an IPL season.
Rahul explained how the players built and carried forward the belief once they started winning consistently. "Once you start winning, you stop thinking about what if and what if we do this wrong, what if we don't click. Your mind is always thinking about, no, look, we have won the last few games, we have that confidence in the team," he said. "We go out with the approach saying that we are going to win this. There is never a doubt in our minds. Even right now, in our heads we have already won the tournament. It is just about going there and expressing ourselves and putting our plans into place on Sunday. That is all we are thinking about right now."
Not just Kohli and de Villiers, but the entire Royal Challengers outfit has displayed remarkable confidence in high-pressure situations. Kohli is famous for walking the talk, but lesser mortals like Rahul, Sachin Baby and Stuart Binny have pitched in with their due whenever the opportunity has presented itself.
Kohli has been ruthless in demanding only the best from his players. Mid-way into the tournament, he did not blink before dropping Chris Gayle who was facing a form slump. Kohli said he couldn't afford to hide a prodigal talent like Sarfaraz Khan, who was being exposed in the field.
His players would not sulk. After all, Royal Challengers have played the pretenders ever since IPL 's inception in 2008. They made the final twice, but finished second. This time too, when the journey started, the motive was to win the tournament.
"It is all about getting in that frame of mind to believe that we can win from any situation,"Binny, one of the three Karnataka players, along with Rahul and S Aravind, said. "That was the key in a lot of the games, everyone put their hands up. We never had only two or three guys putting their hands up. We had Rahul winning few. We had Virat winning majority of them. We had Gayle who stood up in a virtual quarter-final game. Even Sachin Baby played a couple of cameos in the middle [order], which actually took us to where we are. It is the quiet confidence that takes us into the final."
In the penultimate practice session, before the big final, Kohli's men were all at ease. There was nothing special that was evident in their training. Unlike other teams, there has been no motivational speaker or mentor who has been called upon to address the players. Keep it simple and do your job has been Royal Challengers coach Daniel Vettori's only message.
Binny agreed. "We are not going to put too much pressure on ourselves. We are just going to try and carry the momentum that we have had in the last seven games into this game. Look, we have an upperhand playing here at home for sure. We know the conditions, we know exactly what needs to be done. I wouldn't' call it pressure. I would just call it good confidence."