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Match Analysis

Age-old jitters keep RCB fans on edge

Royal Challengers have perhaps the most fearsome top four in the league, but what comes after? Nervy moments for the Chinnaswamy Stadium faithful, usually

Mujeeb Ur Rahman deceived Virat Kohli with a beautifully flighted wrong'un, Royal Challengers Bangalore v Kings XI Punjab, IPL 2018, Bengaluru, April 13, 2018

BCCI

Even on a night when they won with three balls and four wickets to spare, Royal Challengers Bangalore managed enough of a stumble to give their home fans some nervous moments. When Washington Sundar tapped his first ball through the covers, he didn't know how well he had hit it, but he began running as soon as he made contact. It was in sync with the nervous tension around the stadium because Mandeep Singh, the seniormost batsman outside the top four, had just run himself out the ball before. Only six runs were required at that point, but this mistrust of the middle order - really, anyone other than Virat Kohli or AB de Villiers - comes with the territory for a Royal Challengers fan.
It's long been the case while analysing their batting that "what about the middle order?" can be brushed aside with "but look at the top four." For good reason too. Royal Challengers' three most formidable batsmen over the last few years, Chris Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers, have faced roughly 25, 26 and 20 balls per innings respectively when they've batted in the top four for Royal Challengers. That adds up to close to 12 overs per game faced on an average by those three batsmen - numbers most franchises would find acceptable.
Except, most franchises do much better than Royal Challengers after the top four are gone. Between the start of the 2015 season and this one, their batsmen occupying Nos. 5-7 averaged 19.24. Only Sunrisers Hyderabad - another notably top-heavy team over the years - did worse among the seven franchises who batted at least 30 times in this period.
What Sunrisers lack in the middle order, they make up for with a strong bowling unit that often keeps targets low enough for a top-heavy model to work. Royal Challengers have only just put together a team they say is their best balanced ever, and have appeared particularly excited about their bowling arsenal. But on the evidence of their first two games, the middle order remains a worry.
Sarfaraz Khan has been meek in both matches and left his team in some bother when he guided an R Ashwin legbreak to slip off his first ball on Friday. It meant Mandeep had to come in and keep out a hat-trick ball for the second match running, with the side four down and needing 69 off the last 51 balls. On Friday, he had de Villiers for company to ease the pressure of knowing Chris Woakes and Sundar were the only recognised batsmen to follow, but how often can the team count on that luxury? They couldn't in their season-opener against Kolkata Knight Riders, and if it weren't for an anxious Vinay Kumar who conceded 16 off the last over, Royal Challengers might have ended up with a scoring rate of around eight an over in the last five.
Between 2015 and 2017, Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers made 57% of Royal Challengers' runs. In 2016, Kohli made four centuries to go with de Villiers' one. But, as last year showed, some of those highs only come along every now and then. And every time they don't, Royal Challengers have been glaringly exposed for their lack of batting depth. At the moment, there doesn't seem to be enough experience or nous in the middle order to back up Royal Challengers' assertion of good balance
They aren't short of options. Colin de Grandhomme is known for his ability to take charge in the middle order, and is coming off a Test season in which he was New Zealand's highest run-scorer. His presence at the expense of one of the overseas openers could liberate Sarfaraz and Mandeep. Moeen Ali isn't a stranger to middle-order batting either. Besides, playing either of them would also afford them a sixth bowling option.
But in a press conference before the match, head coach Daniel Vettori reasserted his faith in Royal Challengers' strategy of a front-loaded top four and five bowlers. At the moment, that strategy is bringing about the kind of jitters that have constantly accompanied their long and frustrating pursuit of a maiden title. The Chinnaswamy Stadium, like many other grounds in India, goes silent the moment Kohli gets out; how the fans would love it if that was the only such moment.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo