If not reading the track at Chepauk properly wasn’t bad enough, the shot selection by the batsmen left many wondering if anything has changed at all. © AFP
Royal Challengers Bangalore will hold the Chepauk pitch as an alibi, but even that will be modest compensation for the 70-all-out debacle and the inevitable slide towards yet another defeat to Chennai Super Kings. At the end of an underwhelming season opener, the small pocket of RCB faithful in Chennai that had made the five-hour trip on the morning of the game were left wondering if anything’s changed at all, and if sombre silence might become the soundtrack to yet another season.
Clearly this level of pessimism is unwarranted this early into the season. But because the defeat also included a recurring RCB shortcoming, it began to feel as if the failings are now so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to get rid of them with a mere admission of a problem.
As tragicomedies go, it doesn’t get better than Virat Kohli calling for better decision making from his team ahead of the season and then proceed to fluff a couple of lines himself in the first game of the season. The RCB captain, whose captaincy credentials were questioned by Gautam Gambhir earlier this week, had been forthright in attributing RCB’s barren trophy cabinet to misinformed decisions and vowed to correct them heading into the 12th season.
It was a matter of sheer bad luck that Kohli lost the toss in Chennai, but that RCB picked three seamers – Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj – to be backed up by two medium pacers (Colin de Grandhomme and Shivam Dube) casts a serious doubt on RCB’s reading of the wicket.
Curiously, that Kohli referenced CSK’s 200-plus chase against KKR in the only IPL fixture here last year adds an extra couple of exclamation points.
Granted that even MS Dhoni admitted to have been surprised by the exaggerated nature of turn, that he stockpiled as many as three frontline spin options (Harbhajan Singh, Imran Tahir and Ravindra Jadeja) with two other part-timers (Suresh Raina and Kedar Jadhav) backing them kept him in good stead. The three spinners ran riot, claiming eight wickets between them – joint-most in an IPL game – and even Raina, in the only over he bowled, delivered a fine impression of a Muttiah Muralitharan off-break on a fourth-day Galle wicket.
“Not a lot of us saw that coming … He [Dhoni] got one on us tonight,” was AB de Villiers’s honest confession to how the teams had differed in their reading of the pitch.
While team selection on an unpredictable wicket can be pardoned, it was what followed thereafter that prompted exasperated sighs of “Same Old RCB”
The pitch didn’t take long to reveal just what kind of different challenges it had in store for batters. Harbhajan turned the ball in his first over. Then Deepak Chahar, bowling his second, got the ball to stop at a good length, where it pitched, before looping slowly towards the keeper. Kohli, perhaps conditioned by playing Pat Cummins so often in recent times, swung his bat a good half-a-second early and lost his grip in the process.
Mindful of what was happening, Dhoni removed the only slip fielder and instructed his entire ring of off-side fielders to move one step in front to stop the single, which had become the primary scoring shot. Kohli, who’d been shackled by Chahar in that over, saw the need to cut loose against Harbhajan, but mistimed his pull into the hands of the deep mid-wicket fielder.
Then it was time for another decision. Kohli had specifically mentioned that the No.3 role would be taken up by either Moeen Ali or de Villiers on a situational basis. By sending Mooen out, RCB had given the off-spinner two left-handers to bowl at in tandem on a turning track when he’d found his rhythm. Harbhajan gleefully accepted the offer.
Moeen, who slog-swept Harbhajan for six, then played early to a loopy off-break from Harbhajan and popped a simple return catch. And de Villiers? The South African, despite having been reprieved by compatriot Tahir after top-edging a sweep, risked an aerial pull shot off the very next delivery and was done in by the pitch. The wily, ol’ Harbhajan wiped out RCB’s three kingpins in his unchanged spell and when Shimron Hetmyer ran himself out three balls later, the scoreboard read 39 for 4 in 8 overs.
No player in the RCB ranks attempted to re-calibrate the total. No one, as it turned out, was even willing to “look ugly” only a tough pitch, the very essence of batsmanship Kohli had asked his colleagues to cultivate ahead of the season.
“Yes, certainly [we should have re-looked the total we were looking to get]. I think batting first, first game out in the competition… your mind might have told you that perhaps 120-130 might have been enough, but actually, irnoically, it might have been a 100 that might well have been competitive,” RCB’s batting consultant Vikram Solanki conceded.
“But batting first, it takes a brave decision, it takes a brave sort of conversation to say ‘well actually we’ll try to get 100 and try to be in the game.’ We needed just one partnership and if necessary, play ugly really, but dug in, find a way to just survive and stop the rut of constant of wickets. If we’d managed to get a partnership together we might very well have posted 100-plus, and it might have been a different game.”
As it turned out, a total of 100 could have even been match-winning given the general batting struggle that extended into the second innings. Instead RCB folded for 70 – their joint second-lowest total in the tournament’s history and given their team selection, CSK could afford to play out eight overs from Yuzvendra Chahal and Moeen Ali and still need to chase at less than a run a ball from the 12 fast bowlers’ overs.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer and one defeat shouldn’t cost much. But what must be truly worrying for RCB’s fans is that these kind of routs – the 49 and 70-all-outs – no longer feel like a shock. If RCB want to mount a serious title challenge, they’ll have to stop becoming obliging opponents at the first sight of trouble.