On October 21, the world looked rosy for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. They had seven wins from 10 matches in IPL 2020, were jointly at the top of the points table with Delhi Capitals, and a place in the playoffs seemed a formality.
Like the teenager who suddenly finds pocket money running dry at month end though, the Royal Challengers are now scrambling. They are still second on the points table, but haven't added to their points tally while suffering three consecutive defeats. Their net run-rate has swan-dived from a positive 0.182 to a negative 0.145 in the space of three games.
And yet, having sunk to three defeats, if they can string together three wins now, they'll be IPL champions. Win against the Delhi Capitals in their final league match, win the first qualifier against Mumbai, win the final.
"It's a terrible feeling to lose three in a row, you never want to do that," AB de Villiers said after their latest defeat, to Sunrisers Hyderabad on Saturday. "But that is the nature of this tournament, anything can happen. If you lose three in a row, you can win three in a row as well."
There has been a pattern to the Royal Challengers wins and losses though, one which they'll want to examine to achieve that three-game winning streak.
In each of the seven games they have won, including the Super Over win against the Mumbai Indians, at least one of Virat Kohli or de Villiers have hit a half-century. The only exception is their most-recent win, when the Kolkata Knight Riders could muster only 84 for 8 batting first, not leaving an opportunity for a half-century from either man.
While Devdutt Padikkal has also scored runs in the Royal Challengers' wins, his contributions have been more support acts. In wins this season, Kohli averages 91.00 at a strike rate of 132.52. For de Villiers, those figures are 123.00 at 203.00. In losses, Kohli's average drops to 26.33 and his strike rate to 107.48. The fall is steeper for de Villiers, with 19.50 and 115.84.
In contrast, Padikkal's figures in victories - 42.57 at 125.21 - don't fall as drastically in defeats, 20.66 and 131.91. That lower strike rate in victories is an indicator of Padikkal's role in holding one end up while Kohli and de Villiers have led the charge.
In spite of having attempted to plug that gap at nearly every auction for the last four years, the fortunes of the Royal Challengers are sinking and swimming with the form of their two star batsmen. When they perform spectacularly, it leads to victories. When they fail, there seems to be no one to pick up that slack.
They seemed to have got that covered this year, having bought Aaron Finch, having invested in the promising young Josh Philippe, and with Moeen Ali already in the ranks. None of the three has had any great success in the limited, and not-so-limited chances they've had.
Loss of form, especially in T20 cricket, is sometimes as ephemeral as a qualifying spot in your sights. Batsmen will see failure more often than success in the format. But given their continued dependence on Kohli and de Villiers, the choices the Royal Challengers made against the Sunrisers were curious.
Their previous loss, to Mumbai, had come about when the middle order failed to launch from an excellent start. The response against the Sunrisers was to cut the batting further and strengthen the bowling.
Sharjah has already shown ample evidence of its pitches slowing down as IPL 2020 has gone on, with the 200-plus totals of its initial days not being achieved any longer. And yet, the Royal Challengers went in with four seamers. A fit-again Navdeep Saini was a natural part of their best XI, but they also brought in Isuru Udana, while leaving Ali on the bench.
It meant the batting after de Villers, who came in at No.4, read: Washington Sundar, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Chris Morris and Udana. That's arguably among the weakest middle orders a team has had this season. Morris is the only one with a T20 strike rate over 130, and none of them average over 25.
For a team that needs a bit of middle order heft, it was a surprising choice. The middle overs have been a period of struggle for the Royal Challengers, and with all teams having played 13 matches, their batsmen's strike rate in that period (overs 7 to 16) is the worst in the league at 113.29. They have been lifted at the death by de Villiers, but the sluggishness in the middle has contributed to more than one defeat.
Kohli would later say that he thought the team "weren't brave enough with the bat throughout the innings" - but bravery with the bat is a natural consequence of skillsets. A Moeen Ali might be capable of being braver than an Isuru Udana because he has greater range, a greater ability to negotiate top bowling, a quicker eye, surer footwork.
De Villiers pointed to the dismissals of Philippe and himself, five balls apart, as the turning point, though he maintained that the team was well balanced.
"The turning point was probably when Josh and I got out back to back, which cost us about 20 to 30 runs," de Villiers said. "That put a lot of pressure on our middle order.
"We had a very good balanced team. We felt that was the right balance to go with. We had two frontline spinners, four seamers, lots of options with the ball. We have a very good batting line-up which didn't score enough runs today, that's what it comes down to."
That pressure was felt more keenly with the particular batting line-up the Royal Challengers chose to go with.
They could still win three in a row - who would bet against a hot streak from Kohli or de Villiers, or both? But a selection that gives an opportunity for greater middle order support will increase their chances of doing that.