IPL 2020: SRH expose chink in RCB’s batting as race to playoffs heats up

If there is one thing we realised on the final league-stage Saturday of this edition of the Indian Premier League, it’s that no team – barring Mumbai Indians – wants an easy qualification route.

In a season where Chennai Super Kings have never been in the knockouts’ race, you would think the other teams would pull up their socks. They haven’t, with all five teams still in contention for the remaining three spots as you read this. While it is an ode to Mumbai in how well oiled they are, the consistency among other teams in being inconsistent is worrying. In a league that is in its 13th season, you expect more than just two teams constantly making the knockouts. From a holistic IPL viewpoint, that is staggering.

Two teams are synonymous with this inconsistency – Delhi Capitals and Royal Challengers Bangalore. The former were quite brilliant in their early-season form, yet have managed to squander any gains whatsoever and are now on the cusp of exit thanks to faltering run-rate. Royal Challengers Bangalore are only marginally better in terms of NRR as they also blew their massive chance to join Mumbai early in the knockouts’ sanctity. Both these losses were marred by shoddy batting performances.

RCB's downward spiral means Virat Kohli's men are in a precarious position ahead of the playoffs. Image: Sportzpics

RCB’s downward spiral means Virat Kohli’s men are in a precarious position ahead of the playoffs. Image: Sportzpics

To Delhi’s credit, at least they lost to the table-toppers, the all-conquering team in this tournament, one which looks likely to lift the trophy again. It is the Bangalore unit that really needs to look itself in the mirror and ascertain what is really going on.

Yes, this has been a season better than most for the Royal Challengers, but their habit of making unforced mistakes has cost them before. Despite registering vital wins and points on the board, RCB simply haven’t been able to consistently string together a run of form that would make them contenders for the title.

There are two points of consideration here. One, Devdutt Padikkal has transformed their season and the way RCB play. There was a time when Chris Gayle and KL Rahul were tearing down attacks at the top of Bangalore’s batting order. But there was an inherent imbalance about their batting. It was too top-heavy and often impacted their team selection. Then, after the duo’s departure, the onus fell on Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers to score, which didn’t bring desired results either.

This is why Padikkal’s arrival on the scene is such a breath of fresh air. He has that youthful chutzpah, that attacking adventurism of an opening batsman, and the license to go after the bowling. It has resulted in 422 runs in 13 innings with four half-centuries, an average of 32.46, and a strike-rate of 127.10. These figures are important because they underline consistency in his performance, which in turn has meant Bangalore have got off to good starts with regularity.

The other aspect of these figures is also vital. Padikkal has one more half-century than Kohli; his total is only 9 runs shy of Kohli’s total of 431 runs in 13 innings; more importantly, their strike-rates are near similar. It is not to say that Padikkal has outdone his captain, but there is a certain dependency on the opening batsman now. If he scores and gets off to a good start, Bangalore invariably start off well. When he doesn’t, like on Saturday when Sandeep Sharma uprooted his stumps early, they get into all kinds of problems.

RCB's over-reliance on AB de Villiers has been their undoing. Image: Sportzpics

RCB’s over-reliance on AB de Villiers has been their undoing. Image: Sportzpics

It is because the other two opening options – Aaron Finch and Josh Philippe – haven’t done much. It is also because Kohli hasn’t quite hit a purple patch in his batting this season. As a consequence, much depends on Padikkal’s starts and you cannot heap that much pressure on a 20-year-old. This is where the second point creeps in.

AB de Villiers has managed only 363 runs in 12 innings, averaging 45.37 with four half-centuries, but his strike-rate is what matters most. Compared to the low 120s of both Kohli and Padikkal, de Villiers is striking the ball at 163.51 in the 2020 IPL. He is sixth in the highest strike-rate list this season among batsmen with more than 10 innings and 100 runs. Moreover, he is the only RCB batsman in the top-end of that list.

More than Padikkal, Royal Challengers Bangalore depend on de Villiers for explosive knocks in the middle order. It is the bedrock of their batting plan – get a quick start thanks to Padikkal, allow Kohli to build a base, and then unleash de Villiers to knock the opponents out. It has worked, but not consistently enough as you can see from these three batsmen’s figures. The problem being this plan is failing more often at the business end of this tournament.

De Villier’s last score of note – 55 not out – came five matches ago. Since then, he has scored 24, 15, and 39, all of which failed to make the necessary impact. Kohli has scores of 7, 9, 50* in those three matches, but still, no wins or points from these games. Padikkal was the only batsman to score anything of note (74) against Mumbai Indians two matches ago. It has resulted in a string of three losses in a row, comparable to Delhi Capitals’ four consecutive losses. Of course, this is not the kind of form you want going into the knockouts.

Capitals’ loss was a complete batting failure against the tournament’s best bowling attack. But Bangalore were undone because Sunrisers Hyderabad went to work on their batting weakness, coupled with shoddy shot selection and some fantastic bowling. Padikkal’s early dismissal didn’t help, and Kohli has been vulnerable to Sandeep Sharma as well. Kane Williamson just knew where to be stationed for that aerial cover drive.

It is the de Villiers-Rashid Khan battle that was key to this contest. Against Kings XI Punjab at this very ground, RCB held back AB de Villiers against leg-spin and maintained a left-right combination at the crease. All of that has gone out of the window, but could it be justified on Saturday? No, because Rashid Khan is not some junior bowler in Punjab’s attack (all due respect). This was a battle of the best versus the best, and for once, de Villiers came second on a pitch that has progressively slowed down as the tournament has progressed.

Since he couldn’t take on Rashid Khan, he went hard against the other bowlers, albeit too hard against Shahbaz Nadeem. At 71-3 in 11 overs then, Bangalore’s worst nightmare had come true. Their three most dependable batsmen were gone, and what ensued was a display of bad shot selection, especially from Philippe who predictably holed out against Khan.

Sure, Sunrisers Hyderabad were made to work in their 121-run chase but the writing was on the wall. The underlying point here being Bangalore’s chink in their batting armoury and it has been so woefully exposed at a vital stage in the tournament. That’s the bad part. The good parts being their next opponents, Delhi Capitals, aren’t doing too well in the batting department either.

It is a battle of two faltering batting line-ups on Monday in a potential knockout match before the, well, actual knockouts.

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