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How RCB turned a corner to make the playoffs

Smart thinking, consistent selections, and a wider range of go-to players have enabled the side to reach the top four

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Virat Kohli has a chat with head coach Simon Katich, Delhi Capitals vs Royal Challengers Bangalore, IPL 2020, Abu Dhabi, November 2, 2020

Virat Kohli has a chat with head coach Simon Katich  •  BCCI

For Royal Challengers Bangalore, the summer of 2016 was special. Not that they won the IPL - they are yet to win despite making three finals - but because they came back from the brink. Having faced the threat of elimination at the halfway mark - with two wins in seven games - they won six out of their next seven to vault into the top two and progress into the final by beating table-toppers Gujarat Lions in Qualifier-1.
That resurgence was sparked by the Royal Challengers' captain Virat Kohli, who struck a record four centuries and 973 runs that season, with ample support from Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers. That season also marked the arrival of KL Rahul as a T20 batsman.
Although the Royal Challengers lost by eight runs to Sunrisers Hyderabad in the final, the 2016 run should have set the template for the franchise in future pursuits of the title. Instead Kohli's teams would end up with two last-place finishes in the next three seasons.
Along the way, the Royal Challengers replaced their long-standing coach Daniel Vettori with the pair of Gary Kirsten and Ashish Nehra, who were in charge for two seasons before being fired following the team;s bottom-place finish in 2019.
"We spent a huge amount of time reviewing our performance last season, in the lead up to the auction," Hesson said at his first media briefing last year, upon taking over as director of cricket, a role the Royal Challengers carved out in their quest to put in a structure, a word Kohli has used multiple times since.
Hesson brought in the former Australia opener Katich as head coach. Katich, a straight talker, came with experience in the IPL as assistant coach of the Kolkata Knight Riders, while Hesson had served as head coach for a season with Kings XI Punjab. Both men understood the challenge they were undertaking - taking charge of a franchise that had been one of the most popular, as well as one that had frequently left its fans distraught, not just with results but also their auction strategies, which had time and again left them with gaping holes in their team composition.
The first step for Hesson and Katich was not to overhaul, but instead work with and polish the tools already in the shed. "We spent time identifying players for different positions and the kind of roles they will play," Hesson said during the briefing, with Katich alongside. "There was a lot of talk on finishing innings with the ball. I feel we can improve on players we have and make them better. They are a year wiser, a year smarter. We want to maximise this playing group. You will not hear us talking of one or two players in particular. We are going to rely on all of them. Players who have not had a massive job in the past have to stand up. And we will back them."
The duo brought with them a methodical coaching philosophy that put the focus on consistency in selection, laying a solid groundwork going into auctions and rewarding X-factor players with a long rope, in contrast to the revolving door that had prevailed in previous seasons.
The plan has worked so far, with the Royal Challengers making the playoffs for the first time since 2016. So how did the Royal Challengers script this turnaround?
Investing in a young Indian top-order batsman
Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey (his breakthrough century in 2009 notwithstanding), Sarfaraz Khan, Sachin Baby, Mandeep Singh… the list is long. At different points in this decade, all these players were part of the Royal Challengers line-up before being discarded. While their talent was obvious, the presence of Gayle, de Villiers, Kohli and Tillakaratne Dilshan, who spent three years at the franchise, left them with few opportunities in their formative years.
It appeared as if that trend would continue with Devdutt Padikkal, too. He was signed during the 2019 auction, but didn't play a game that season. Old hands like Parthiv Patel continued to open for the Royal Challengers. Not that Patel performed poorly, but he wasn't making a big impact.
The franchise had to not just plan for this season but also for the future. Hesson had found one player who they could build that future around. Hesson, who happened to be a commentator during Padikkal's breakthrough Karnataka Premier League season in 2018, trailed Karnataka across the country during their 2019-20 domestic season with one eye on Padikkal. He watched him consistently churn out runs and deliver titles in both the 50-overs and T20 competition for Karnataka.
With a combination of fluent technique and bold strokeplay Padikkal has been the best emerging batsman this IPL. Hesson, Katich and Kohli have helped him settle in his role, and even though the Royal Challengers have continued to rely on Kohli and de Villiers, Padikkal has been a key performer.
In their last league game against the Delhi Capitals, the 20-year-old eclipsed Shreyas Iyer's record for most runs by an uncapped Indian in his debut season. He's now closing in on the 500-run mark.
Role clarity and consistency in selection
Players this season have got long runs in the side. After a bit of tinkering across the initial few matches, the Royal Challengers have found roles for key players and allowed them to settle into them. Aaron Finch was asked not just to help Padikkal understand match situations, but also provide robust starts. The Australia limited-overs captain struggled, but the team management did not give up easily.
And though he hasn't looked anywhere near his fluent best, he's made a reasonable contribution with three half-century stands with Padikkal, and individual scores of 52 and 47, ensuring that the Royal Challengers seldom suffered early damage. It wasn't until their 12th league match that the Royal Challengers replaced Finch with the less experienced Josh Philippe, whose talent has excited de Villiers among others.
Philippe is yet to deliver on that promise, but the franchise is staying patient. The Royal Challengers have only used three opening combinations this season, even fewer than the four they used when they made the final in 2016. In 2018 and 2019, they used six and five opening pairs respectively.
The same clarity is evident in the bowling department, too. Offspinner Washington Sundar has become as much a go-to bowler for Kohli as his senior spin partner Yuzvendra Chahal.
Sundar hasn't been straightjacketed as a powerplay specialist, something that limited him last year. If the situation has warranted it, he has bowled in the middle overs too, as he did in the final league match against the Delhi Capitals recently, when it became clear that the Royal Challengers needed to keep their net run rate in mind.
Against specific teams, Sundar was given the new ball, like in the Super-Over thriller against the Mumbai Indians against Rohit Sharma and Quinton de Kock, who both like pace on the ball early. Like other key players, Sundar has had clarity with his role, which he alluded to in a media interaction.
Navdeep Saini has been another dependable bowler for the Royal Challengers this season. In just his second IPL season, Saini has shown he has not just extreme pace but also the accuracy and the versatility to work out batsmen.
In previous seasons, the Royal Challengers have struggled to balance their side, but they've managed to do so this year - it's been a big reason for their good showing through the first 10 matches. That balance has been found courtesy de Villiers doubling up as wicketkeeper. De Villiers, whose back condition has needed constant monitoring in recent years, had last kept wickets for the Royal Challengers in 2013. His taking the big gloves has allowed the team to field an extra batsman or an extra bowler depending on the opposition and ground conditions.
Focus on data and match-ups
As important as stability of line-ups is, being rigid serves no purpose as was evident from the Chennai Super Kings' performance this season. The Royal Challengers have made wise tactical calls, bringing in players based on the conditions.
Take the example of Mohammed Siraj, who has played in only eight out of the 14 matches so far. Siraj was brought in specifically when they needed to strengthen their bowling in Sharjah - the smallest of the three venues, where playing an extra bowler has often been warranted.
Later in the tournament, in conditions assisting swing in the open-air theatre of Abu Dhabi, Siraj blew away the Knight Riders with an outstanding spell of 3 for 8 in his four overs.
Kohli had a big hand in Siraj's success in that match particularly, where the Royal Challengers captain read the conditions as being favourable for swing bowling, and decided to change the original plan of bowling Sundar in the second over.
Another smart tactical call Kohli made was bringing back Saini for an early fourth over in the Royal Challengers' tournament opener, to go hard at the last recognised pair of Rashid Khan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and try and ensure the Sunrisers had no way back after a middle-order collapse. Saini burst through Kumar and Khan's defences in the space of three balls. The Royal Challengers haven't often shown sort of ruthlessness in past seasons, but they've shown they're getting better at winning tactical battles.
The Morris factor
In the past few seasons the Royal Challengers have tried a number of overseas allrounders without quite finding the right one for their needs. Marcus Stoinis spent two seasons at the franchise - 2018 and 2019 - without making too much of a noise, and before that there was Shane Watson, whom they used in a middle-order role rather than as opener as the Super Kings did so successfully in 2018. Then there was the spectacular failure of Corey Anderson as a death bowler in 2018.
All three were batting allrounders whose failure to make an impact was partly down to a lack of clarity over their role.
This time, the Royal Challengers were clear in their thinking. They needed a gun death bowler. They wanted a bowling allrounder and earmarked the South African Chris Morris at the auction, and were prepared to go even higher than the INR 10 crore they eventually shelled out for him. The reason was his death-overs economy rate. In the last four overs, Morris' economy rate before this season (8.45) was the second-best among fast bowlers who had bowled at least 300 balls in this phase in the IPL, behind Lasith Malinga's 7.82.
Morris has delivered exactly what the Royal Challengers have asked of him. Of all bowlers who've sent down at least 30 balls in that phase, Morris (7.03) has the best death-overs economy rate. He's also been effective in the powerplay, with an economy rate of 6.26 in this phase.
Morris hobbled off the field with a hamstring niggle in the Royal Challengers' final league game against the Delhi Capitals, having bowled just two overs. The team will desperately hope he returns fit in time for the Eliminator.
Better communication
While the Royal Challengers have improved in many aspects, it's not like they've always made the right decisions. Kohli admitted that holding de Villiers back and promoting Shivam Dube against Kings XI Punjab may have been a mistake, but even that decision gave a glimpse of the Royal Challengers' thinking - of having a plan and having the willingness to stick with it. Kohli pointed out that one big change this season has been the transparency between the coaches and the players.
"The communication is nicely designated this time," Kohli said of the new leadership and coaching group. "It's only when people don't want to take responsibility you come into picture. Now people are taking their responsibility. So do we as players, but we don't feel overburdened, which is a great thing in any system. This is the most balanced we've felt as a squad."
As part of their long-term vision the Hesson-Katich combine is attempting to build a culture of success and mentorship. Younger players were often the centre of team activities and bonding sessions.
Gurkeerat Singh presented Finch his first Royal Challengers cap ahead of their season-opener. Chahal captained a team containing de Villiers and Finch in a practice match. Patel, who hasn't played a single match, continues to help youngsters like Padikkal, the man who replaced him, with his batting. Dale Steyn may no longer be a regular, but he has taken Saini, Umesh Yadav and Siraj under his wing, and worked on their seam position and wrist action during numerous training sessions. Phillipe has been working with de Villiers, who has high hopes from the young Australian wicketkeeper.
Through the camaraderie comes the trust and the collective belief. Such activities are not uncommon. In the end Kohli, Katich and Hesson are well aware that what will eventually matter is whether the team can win the IPL. They will feel the pressure from the owners. At the start of the IPL Sanjeev Churiwala, the outgoing chairman of the Royal Challengers, had admitted that not winning the title has piled pressure on the owners.
It has not been a smooth run to the playoffs for the Royal Challengers. At one point they were threatening to finish in the top two, but they lost four matches on the bounce in the second half of the league phase.
Yet here they are, in the playoffs, scampering through somehow. It isn't ideal, but the Royal Challengers have another shot at history if they can win three more matches.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo