Feature

Anatomy of champions: How RCB went from 0-5 to WPL winners in a year

A team full of superstars just couldn't click in 2023. It prompted a comprehensive season review that would change everything in 2024

Shashank Kishore and S Sudarshanan
18-Mar-2024
RCB players celebrate their maiden WPL title win  •  BCCI

RCB players celebrate their maiden WPL title win  •  BCCI

It's July 2023. Royal Challengers Bangalore have begun a comprehensive season review. At the inaugural WPL, they finished fourth among five teams. They lost their first five games in a row and ended the season with just two wins. It was a team that had the game's superstars in the mix. Smriti Mandhana, Ellyse Perry, Sophie Devine and Heather Knight among others. Yet, something didn't click.
Mandhana arrived for the performance review half-expecting it to be like a corporate appraisal. Mandhana had endured a forgettable season, where she went without a half-century. At different times, Mandhana had admitted having been feeling the heat of captaincy. She sought out Meg Lanning after one of the games.
How the tide turns.
On Sunday night, a triumphant Mandhana stood on the winner's podium, beaming with pride and joy, while Lanning stood beside the dug out alone, her face covered in a towel and tears rolling down her cheeks. There couldn't have been a bigger picture of contrast.
As the cameras then panned to the winning team, the entire RCB squad had broken out into a jig. All of them had huddled around a mobile phone screen, hands waving and fists pumping. On the other side was Virat Kohli, RCB's face for a decade-and-a-half.
As a player, Kohli has himself come within touching distance of an IPL crown three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2016, only to be denied. In a way, it was poetic that the women had delivered title No. 1 in Kohli's hometown, New Delhi.
All along, Mandhana had been sitting in a quiet corner of the dressing room, soaking in the winning feeling. And then she joined her dancing team-mates briefly. Then as her parents stood beside the boundary, she walked up to give them a hug. She then met RCB's top brass - Prathmesh Mishra, the chairman, and Rajesh Menon, the vice-chairman. The elation of having fulfilled a journey they began that July day at RCB's corporate office in Bengaluru's UB Towers was all too evident.
It wasn't a surprise that Mandhana touched upon how much this title win meant to the management and the ownership. "The first thing they asked me at the meeting was, 'are you okay?' That was reassuring," Mandhana said later. "The management told me, 'this is your team. Run it the way you like it.' For us to have won it now, it's great for the franchise and our fans."
Among the first things Mandhana did after that meeting was to dial Luke Williams, the former South Australia cricketer who came with a solid body of work. Mandhana had worked with Williams [assistant coach] during her time at the Hundred with Southern Brave. Williams had also helped Adelaide Strikers win back-to-back WBBL titles after two runners-up finishes during his four-season tenure.
Mandhana had received endorsement from her Brave team-mate and Australia allrounder Tahlia McGrath, who had benefited from having worked with Williams. When it was decided the franchise was going to overhaul their structure, they reached out to Williams with a formal offer. The prospect of working with Mandhana excited him. He'd come on board the following month officially and their pre-auction work had begun in earnest.
"When the management asked me if I had anyone in mind, the first name that came to my mind was that of Luke Williams," Mandhana said. "He's really big on building a good culture and that's so necessary in the first few years for a team. If we get the basics right, then we can build on it. He's done that so well at Adelaide."
In one of their first few chats after he came on board, Mandhana and Williams had discussed their auction strategy. Mandhana had already firmed up one part of that plan long before they met: to be available for the women's domestic season, even if it meant giving up a lucrative offer from the WBBL.
"Playing domestic cricket was a conscious decision," she explained. "This helped as a player and as RCB captain. I had not played domestic for a few years and sometimes when you hear names, you don't recognise them, or you don't get the full picture just by watching videos.
"We have a great scouting team. But when you're facing them, even as a fielder, you realise who has the spark. Also, for me as a player, I wanted to get used to Indian conditions as I had been playing only overseas for a while."
Simultaneously, Williams and Mandhana would discuss from time to time over lengthy calls about what the make up of their squad would be. It was during one such chat that they'd spoken of potentially bidding for Sophie Molineux, the left-arm spinning allrounder.
Molineux had been out of action for close to two years due to an ACL injury. Prior to that, she had taken a mental-health break from the game. It began with the two tracking her return from after the Hundred. Molineux's guile and resilience always impressed Mandhana and, Williams being in close proximity in Australia worked in their favour.
It also helped that none of the others put in a bid for her. Molineux came in at her base price (INR 30 lakh) and she delivered wholesome returns by picking up 12 wickets, the joint second-most in the competition. Her three-wicket over in the final made the Capitals go from cruise control to a full-blown turbulence.
"The knack with which she bowled the last over against UP was really great," Mandhana recalled. "She tossed one up at sixth stump - which was not planned - but she bowled it so beautifully that I was like 'wow, she is a smart bowler! And that was when I realized she doesn't need a lot of inputs. I just need to tell her what shots the batter is capable of playing. She is really smart."
The other unheralded cog in their wheel was Georgia Wareham. They had narrowed down on a leg spinner. Amanda-Jade Wellington and Alana King were among the ones shortlisted. Wareham's batting chops tilted the scales in her favor. Yet, the auction dynamics meant she wasn't a definite shoo-in.
She had been signed by Gujarat Giants for INR 75 lakh last year but was released as part of a massive restructuring after just two games. RCB got her at INR 40 lakh, yet another base-price acquisition. Later, the management admitted to having been "surprised" no one challenged them. Turns out, they'd budgeted a lot more for an overseas legspinner. She repaid the faith by picking up seven wickets, while striking her runs lower down the order at 163.23.
The auction strategy was just one side of the coin. There was a meticulous plan to unlock the best from their Indian players. They conducted skills and fitness camps for their local players periodically. All of them were routinely monitored by RCB's trainers, who tailored custom-made programs. S Asha was among those who immensely benefitted from this.
At 32, Asha believed she would be lucky to play maybe one or two seasons. The trainers are believed to have told her, "you have a good five years ahead of you with small tweaks." Asha bought into it wholeheartedly and turned up fit and ready at the start of the season. On her own, Asha delivered two wins.
Against UP Warriorz in their season-opener, Asha spun RCB to a win when it looked unlikely. She struck three times in an over to derail the chase. She also denied Amelia Kerr in the final over of the Eliminator with Mumbai Indians needing 12 runs.
The other shining star of RCB's campaign was Richa Ghosh, who donned the finisher's role to perfection that 'perfectionist Perry' - the team's superstar allrounder who finished with the Orange Cap for most runs - gushed about being awestruck by her hitting ability.
Richa had turned up at the inaugural season with niggling fitness issues. An underwhelming season there led to her being dropped from the Indian team. She had been given a simple message: to become fitter and stronger. Richa took the suggestions onboard, and returned reinvigorated. She'd fittingly hit the winning runs on Sunday, and was at the forefront of the team's winning picture.
A week prior to the final, Richa had made 51 off 28 against the Capitals, but couldn't take RCB over the line and they fell short by a run. She channeled that hurt in a positive way to stand tall when her team needed it in the final.
"After that outing, I had an unfinished job," Richa said. "My only plan from then was jo bhi hai, match khatam karna hai [whatever it is I have to finish the game]. And I felt good to hit the shot that won us the title. They had got the cover fielder in, and my favourite shot is the lofted cover drive, so it came naturally to me."
RCB were also quick to recognise Shreyanka Patil as one of the heartbeats of the team. She was last year's breakout star, but endured a poor start to the campaign. In her first game, her three wicketless overs cost 32. In the second, she bowled just one over. Then, she missed a couple of games with a niggle that needed a splint on her left hand. She also suffered a twisted ankle on the field against Mumbai.
Prior to the season, Shreyanka had endured a few off-field issues during the inter-zonal tournament. Some miscommunications between her and the Karnataka team management over availability, soon after the Australia series ended, had snowballed into something bigger. It was a needless controversy, none of it Shreyanka's making.
"There was one South Zone game where I was not happy, [Mandhana] came to me and I shed my tears in front of her," Shreyanka said. "When I told her the reason, she told me 'March 17 is the day you are going to do it for us'." Shreyanka had a remarkable second half, and finished the tournament with 13 wickets to walk away with the Purple cap.
Molineux, Wareham, Richa and Shreyanka are, of course, also just a few of several examples within the setup who thrived because of the environment that Perry spoke glowingly about, having had a ringside view of how teams operate over the years in a high-performance environment.
That Perry, an introvert herself, broke the ceiling and did a few dance jigs and celebrated with her mates over bowls of ice-cream, endless fun sessions in the team room or while fiercely competing in games of dumb charades as part of team-building told you of a setup that had insulated themselves from the pressures of having to live up to reputation.
"All through our goal was to not think of the goal," Mandhana said. It's a tag line they stuck by all through. And one they let go only after the final goal was achieved, after which Mandhana proudly said, "there's a statement that's always associated with this team. It's finally time to say 'ee sala cup namdu.' The narrative had changed from 'this time the cup WILL BE ours' to 'this time the cup IS ours.'
This was by no means a perfect campaign. That they managed to win despite two A-list stars Devine and Renuka having below-par seasons told you how well the rest of the group combined to clinch it.
On Tuesday, the franchise will hold a glitzy event to mark their build-up towards the upcoming IPL season, with performances from several known names from the entertainment industry.
Title No. 1 has been secured and the celebrations planned at the 'Unbox' event will only double. Sure enough, the fans will all be there at the Chinnaswamy in red and gold, cheering for their beloved 'Arrrr-Ceee-Beeee'