Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
This is the first time since 2011 that Royal Challengers Bangalore have qualified for the playoffs in just 12 matches. It is all the more incredible because seven of these 12 matches have been played on surfaces that are historically their weakness: slow, low-scoring tracks of Chennai, Sharjah and Dubai. They have won six of those seven matches, losing one to the renowned masters of these conditions, Chennai Super Kings.
That defeat happens to be the only match that has not followed a pattern. A quick start, a slowdown in the first half of the middle overs, and then Glenn Maxwell. During this defeat, the opening stand went on for too long, Maxwell didn't get time to make an impact and scored just 11 off nine, and RCB lost. His lowest score in the other six is 39; other five are all half-centuries. In three of the wins, Maxwell has been Player of the Match.
In these seven matches, Maxwell has scored 350 runs at 9.25 an over while the average scoring rate, including extras, has been 7.49. Take out Maxwell's contribution, and RCB themselves have gone at 7.42 an over.
It is, admittedly, a disingenuous stat to take out a team's best performer and say the numbers of the rest are as bad as the others, but the point is that other teams have not managed to find anyone as capable of rising above the conditions for as long as Maxwell. Jonny Bairstow, Suryakumar Yadav and Ruturaj Gaikwad have gone at better than eight an over, but scored fewer runs - 211, 211 and 184. In that category, RCB's AB de Villiers has scored 175 but at 10.29 an over.
Unlike Bairstow and Gaikwad, Maxwell has turned games around in the middle overs, scoring at 8.4 an over as against the 7.44 overall. This has allowed de Villiers, who has been RCB's constant saviour, to almost become a specialist death-overs plunderer. If Harshal Patel was the missing link in RCB's attack for these conditions, Maxwell has completed their batting. Depending on how you look at it, Maxwell has either allowed Virat Kohli and Devdutt Padikkal a slowdown period after the Powerplay or he has been bailing them out after the openers have dug them a hole.
To make your mind up on that, you only need to look at their intent. Kohli and Paddikal have both been attacking in the Powerplay, but have almost gone into ceasefire after before Padikkal starts to attack in the second half of the middle overs. It points to a team plan of making sure there is a basic fighting score ensured before Maxwell is sent in to do his thing. The only time that partnership between Paddikal and Kohli went on for too long, they lost.
Maxwell has scored 216 runs against spin at 9.45 an over. Impressively, Gaikwad has scored two more runs at 9.41 an over. No other batter has been this good against spin, which is a key weapon in the middle overs on these pitches. It has probably helped that RCB have given Maxwell a fixed role at No. 4 who bats with around 10 overs remaining. He says it helps that his role with Australia is quite similar.
Just like a bowler is additionally pleased at economical figures on a flat track, Maxwell will be pleased he is having this season on difficult tracks for batting. He is also succeeding at what is a consistent challenge in T20 cricket: batting first and taking your team to a par-plus total. Only two batters - both openers - have scored more runs than Maxwell when batting first this IPL, but his smart runs and smart strike rate - ESPNcricinfo's metric that provides context to runs and wickets against match situation and bowling faced - has a bigger jump over his actual runs and strike rate than others. De Villiers, Ambati Rayudu and Suryakumar have had similar impact but have also scored more than a 100 runs fewer than Maxwell.
Maxwell's form on these pitches is of great importance because wherever they finish in the table, to win the IPL, RCB will have to win either of two matches in Dubai or two in Sharjah and one in Dubai. They are all slow conditions that Maxwell has already conquered. Already Maxwell's 2021 (407 runs at a strike-rate of 145.35 in low-scoring conditions) is rivalling 2014 (552 at 187.75 in high-scoring conditions) as his best IPL. Maxwell has anywhere between three and five matches to go to try to make this his best IPL. And a World Cup to follow in similar conditions.
Maxwell has succeeded through his own unique methods. In Dubai, he has used reverse hits to use the shorter side of the boundary. In Sharjah, he has used more conventional power as the boundaries are already short. On slower pitches, he feels, you get that extra time to line up the reverse hits.
This is a mind that is completely original. Around a year after that 2014 IPL, when the 2015 World Cup was about to start, Australia were showing a glimpse of their powerful line-up in the tri-series that preceded. On a tough WACA pitch in the final, Maxwell took Australia from 60 for 4 to 278 with 95 off 98. In the press conference, he was asked if having similar big hitters around him helped take some pressure off.
Maxwell raised his eyebrow and shot back, "I don't think anyone is like me. If you find a replica, I would love to meet him and ask, 'Why?'" Even after the press conference, he kept on with the conversation: "Let me know if you find someone like me," he said. "He might need to see a few of my clips first."
Six years on, Maxwell has been through ups and downs that have made him dismantle his game and build it again. That confidence has taken many a beating. In this IPL, though, he has done things - switch-hits off spinners and reverse ramps off pacers for sixes - that have reminded of that 2015 proclamation, "I don't think anyone is like me."