COMMENT: Rahul’s injury has hurt struggling Royal Challengers

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April 23 is a date to remember for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Back in 2013, Chris Gayle played one of the most ferocious T20 knocks in history as he struck an imposing 175 off 66 balls – including 17 sixes – against the now-defunct Pune Warriors. It helped his side score the highest IPL total ever – 263-5 in 20 overs.

Four years later, on the same date this past Sunday, the Royal Challengers’ management and fans got to witness the other end of the spectrum. Chasing 132 against Kolkata Knight Riders, Bangalore were bowled out for 49 runs in 9.4 overs – the lowest-ever total in IPL history.

It explains the mercurial nature of this franchise team. They have boasted the likes of Gayle, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers in their line-up for what seems an eternity now.

And yet they have never won the IPL crown. Instead, they are equally capable of setting up records as hitting the self-destruct button at a moment’s notice. It is great entertainment for the neutrals, but for the ones with a stake in Royal Challengers’ results, this unpredictability only sows inconsistency.

Franchise T20 teams abhor that last word. In an IPL season that spans about six weeks, the slightest variation in well-set processes can bring about undesired results.

Hence, management teams in the IPL strive for uniformity, almost to the extent that it can be tedious at times.

Look at what Chennai Super Kings did before they were banned – somehow or other they retained the nucleus of their side, and relied on a core group of players to deliver the goods. It is what Mumbai Indians have strived for this season.

Until the game against Delhi Daredevils when Mitchell Johnson was included in the playing eleven, Mumbai had played their first six matches without a single player bought at this year’s auction.

Or, look at Kolkata Knight Riders, even. At best, they are reliant on changing specific elements of their bowling attack but retaining core players – whether overseas or domestic. When Chris Lynn was ruled out owing to injury, Kolkata baulked at changing their batting order and instead shuffled Sunil Narine to the opening slot, surprising many but proving a masterstroke.

Another common aspect herein is how these two franchises have also identified three key overseas players with absolute certainty. It leaves room for experimentation as well as puts onus on their Indian players, especially the younger ones, to take up more responsibility.

It can be argued here that the Royal Challengers have two such overseas players marked up permanently – Gayle and de Villiers. The addition of Shane Watson helped their cause in the 2016 IPL, when they finished runners-up, but he’s been found wanting this year.

So, what has gone so horribly wrong at RCB?

Bangalore have forever been plagued with an imbalance between its batting and bowling resources. It wasn’t as prominent last season when Kohli smacked 973 runs and forced almost every opposition into submission. Ahead of this season though, team management over-compensated in bringing together more options – Tymal Mills, Billy Stanlake, Pawan Negi and Aniket Choudhary.

In trying to fit in Negi as well as one of the overseas pacers (along with Adam Milne) available, Shane Watson has been sacrificed at times. Last year, the former Australia international scored only 179 runs in 16 matches, but more importantly, picked up 20 wickets.

This imbalance becomes more pronounced with the absence of injured duo KL Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan, that has resulted in a paucity of runs from this much vaunted batting line-up. Khan, 19, is an exciting prospect, boasting a T20 strike-rate over 150, and was expected to kick on this year after impressing in limited outings in 2016.

Rahul, meanwhile, is a much bigger loss.

Last season, after Gayle was struggling for form, the team opened with Rahul instead. The result: he scored 397 runs in 14 matches, with four half-centuries. Over the past year, Rahul has graduated into a top quality international batsman, someone who could have been an anchoring point for the Bangalore top-order.

In the IPL, however, while it means opportunity for others, the likes of Mandeep Singh (65 runs in seven matches), Stuart Binny (77 runs and three wickets in seven matches) and Negi (35 runs and six wickets in six matches) just haven’t kicked on, leaving Kedar Jadhav with too much to do, too often. Gayle’s continuously stuttering starts, de Villier’s lack of fitness (he has played only 4 out of 7 matches thus far) and Watson’s intermittent selection has heaped further pressure on Kohli’s shoulders.

The star batsman has responded aptly with 154 runs from four matches since his full recovery from shoulder injury. But unless someone stands up and contributes more often, thus forcing a consistently steady balance in their playing eleven, even Kohli cannot pull the Royal Challengers Bangalore out of their current quagmire.

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