Royal Challengers Bangalore have had an up-and-down IPL 2023, winning four and losing four of their first eight games - six of which have been at their home ground, the Chinnaswamy Stadium. They will play their next five away due to the upcoming Karnataka assembly elections.
Mike Hesson, RCB's director of cricket, sat down with ESPNcricinfo in Bengaluru the day before their defeat to Kolkata Knight Riders to discuss his first three and a half seasons in charge of the side.
This is your fourth season with RCB, but your first based in Bengaluru. How have you found it, being here at home base?
It's been great. Everyone involved in RCB has talked about how great Chinnaswamy is, and it certainly hasn't under-delivered in terms of the intensity and the whole environment around it: the drive to the ground, seeing the whole city behind the team. It's a pretty cool place to be. We are pretty keen to put on a show, and we've played pretty well at home this year as well.
We're about to get on the road for three weeks. The IPL is always pretty intense, and obviously with ten teams now, there's no break or respite. It's been good fun.
What has the challenge of playing so many of your early games at the Chinnaswamy been like?
You get used to the conditions. Each pitch here is slightly different, so it's not like you can just plug and play; you have to adapt to it. It's a great place to bat, especially for top-order batters, and as the tournament unfolds, different players will be exposed to different challenges. But when you play six of your first eight at Chinnaswamy, it's a tough ask for some.
When you arrived at RCB, they hadn't qualified for the playoffs for three years, and had a reputation as an up-and-down team. How do you reflect on the progress you've made?
We'd obviously struggled for a couple of years. It was just about coming in and working with the people we had here to try and give some real consistency and structure around how we want to play the game, and how that would work with the types of players we want for the conditions we are likely to play in.
That was challenged, because we didn't really know where the tournaments were going to be each year. You could pick a team for Chinnaswamy and not know whether you're going to be here or not. But I think across the last three years, we've provided a really stable platform for the playing group. It's very hard to think that you're going to be consistent on the park if off the park we are inconsistent, so that's one of the things we've definitely worked really hard to bring.
There is some satisfaction of being the only team that has made the playoffs three years in a row, but it's also provided some frustration as well: the fact that we've got ourselves some opportunities and we haven't quite played our best cricket at the right time. Winning tournaments is about firing at the right time - and making sure that obviously you make the playoffs first. There is a little sense of satisfaction but also a sense of a job unfulfilled just yet.
One of the biggest decisions of your tenure was identifying a replacement for Virat Kohli, when he stepped down as captain after the 2021 season. How did you settle on Faf du Plessis?
Virat's a very hard man to replace - and to be captain when your ex-captain is still there is incredibly difficult. You've got to be quite a strong character and really have the changing room [on your side]. You can't be a developing captain. We thought we had to have an established captain with a lot of those core experiences.
We'd spent a lot of time looking at all the gaps that we had in our squad. We looked at Indian players as well, and we went pretty hard for one or two. We settled relatively late on Faf, but we thought he ticked a lot of our boxes: he was highly experienced and still a high-quality player. We never knew at that time whether we'd be able to get a full three-year cycle out of somebody at that age [37, at the time of the mega auction], but the fact that he's incredibly fit gave us a lot more confidence.
He was almost a "plug and play". He knew Virat and [Glenn] Maxwell very well; they had a great relationship. He had a reputation for working equally well with overseas and domestic players, which is critical - to have an overseas player that comes in [as captain] and doesn't have that empathy towards how a team works could have been a disaster. The more we talked to people about Faf, the more he was our target.
In 2021, you brought in Glenn Maxwell, who had just come off a poor season with Punjab Kings. What has helped him become a more consistent IPL batter over the last three years?
Often people think of Maxwell as a finisher. We saw him in a different light, as actually someone who can bat throughout the innings. Just because he can play shots all around the wicket, it doesn't necessarily mean he can hit from ball one when the field's out; that's a tough ask for anyone, especially when some of the wickets are slow.
We gave him responsibility. We said, "We actually think you're a high-quality batter, rather than just a finisher", and he's thrived on that responsibility. We know he is a wonderful player of spin but we also know that his game's developed hugely against pace. We've also tried to give a bit of clarity around the idea that if you have to go in early, we trust that you can do that, rather than potentially trying to hide him or slide him down to have a certain entry point.
Maxi is a great team man. Hugely passionate, which I like. I like that competitive spirit. That's why him and Virat get on really well. Any good team has a lot of different types of characters, and he's a nice free spirit combined nicely with the other two [du Plessis and Kohli].
The three players you mention - du Plessis, Kohli and Maxwell - have scored over two-thirds of your runs this season, and the rest of the batting line-up has struggled to make an impact. It'll be hard to win an IPL without them contributing at some stage, so how do you intend to get more out of them?
We saw that last year: our top order wasn't as successful, and the likes of Shahbaz [Ahmed] and DK [Dinesh Karthik] held our team together. [Mahipal] Lomror was very good towards the end of last year too, and different players stood up to get us through the playoffs. This year we've played six of our first eight at Chinnaswamy, which is very much a top-order type of surface - if you get in, you cash in - so therefore, the opportunities for the middle order are limited.
Three of those games have been played on slower surfaces, so when the ball gets soft, it's harder to score. Other than the Chennai game - which was at night and on a very good wicket throughout, where you could accelerate - the opportunities were slightly different. We have a lot of confidence in the rest of the batting group, that when the opportunity arises, they'll grab it.
Last year our top order was getting hammered in the powerplay and we were saved by the middle order, so I think it's more conditions-based. We've got a lot of confidence in that Indian middle-order domestic group. It's a long tournament, and they don't actually have put their mind back that far for when they were some of our best performers.
Mohammed Siraj has had a breakthrough season after a tough 2022. What is he doing differently? His lengths have been much more consistent with the new ball.
I think those lengths in the powerplay are probably a flow-on from confidence. He's played a lot of one-day cricket, where you've got to do your core skills over and over again, and he's become very good at those core skills. When you get confident doing that, you can repeat them; if you're not, you can go searching a little bit.
He's been exceptionally good at what he does. His seam presentation is as good as I've seen it, with both his outswing and his three-quarter ball, and he's bowling a good bouncer. You add that to the fact he's bowling quick, and no wonder he is challenging the top order. With that, you grow confidence with your back-end bowling as well. You're coming back with confidence and you're used more as a weapon rather than the captain thinking, "Where can we fit you in?"
I'm delighted for Siraj. Everyone knows he had a tough year last year but the fact he's been really good for India - he's one of their first picks in white-ball cricket - has flowed into his work here.
And he's been leading the attack in the absence of Josh Hazlewood.
He's thrived on it from the very first game. We gave Siraj the first over and said, "Look, you are the leader of our attack." He thrives under that sort of confidence. Every time I've asked him to deliver in the powerplay, he has set the tone for us. If you add [David] Willey or Hazelwood to that, it's a challenging opening attack.
How much of a difference will Hazlewood make?
Look, he will [make a difference]. But also to be fair to [Reece] Topley, [Wayne] Parnell and Willey, they've been really good for us. When you miss a guy of Hazlewood's quality… obviously we invested a lot of money in him, because we knew he'd do that job, so the fact that our back-up bowlers have done such a good job is exciting for us.
Wanindu Hasaranga arrived late this year, and has had a fairly quiet start to the season. Do you see him coming into the game more during this stretch of away games?
I thought he was exceptional against RR [Rajasthan Royals]. Chinnaswamy, for spinners, is an incredibly tough place to bowl. It took Yuzi [Chahal] a little while, and now he's a genius at it, but it's a tough place to bowl for any spinner. Any bowler has to learn to adapt to distinctly different conditions: altitude, small boundaries, mishits going for six, you've got to find a way of having some more defensive skills, and I thought he was very good.
Will we see Hasaranga batting up the order at some stage? That seemed to be a major reason that you brought him in, having released Chahal.
Absolutely. The beauty of Wani is that he's versatile in how he plays. I think the Impact rule has probably meant that all sides are playing an extra batter, so that's probably limited his opportunities so far. But that doesn't mean that, in different parts of the tournament, we won't be very confident to throw him in and get him to take on not only spin but pace as well once he's set.
What have you made of the Impact Player rule?
Personally, I'm not a big fan of it. I think that it takes the Indian allrounders out of the game, which a lot of our squad have spent time working on. I wouldn't say I'm a traditionalist, but I think there needs to be a good reason for change. If you're trying to develop allrounders, some of them don't start as batting at No. 5 and bowling four overs - you have to transition them into that role. I think this has made that a little bit harder.
Looking at the positive side of it, I think it's made a heck of a lot of close finishes because the game's never over. If you got three wickets in the powerplay previously, you could squeeze the middle. Now, they keep going hard at you. The game has definitely changed; it's probably one reason why we haven't seen too many one-sided games.
Do you think there's been a change in how top-order batters have played, with the extra batting depth?
Yeah, I mean, we've faced Shahrukh Khan at No. 8. They just keep coming at you. It's more in the middle overs than the top. At the top, sides come hard anyway, but in the middle overs, between 7 and 11 used to be sort of "soft" overs. Now, sides are still coming hard at you. That's where I think the game has changed the most.
RCB have often taken early wickets - but opponents have still been able to attack, as we saw in the defeats to CSK and LSG.
You've got to shift your targets. Five [wickets] in 15 [overs] used to give you an open end; now, you've got to probably get at least one more. That means you have to continue to attack, not just defend.
Those middle overs - the little soft overs - are now a heck a lot more challenging and your middle-order players now can't just get themselves into the innings cause they've actually got to continue to take the game on. It's definitely changed the game.