Royal Challengers Bangalore already had a reason to smile before the match started. Their single biggest enemy this season was not present. The Pune skies were clear with no hint of rain.

By the end, they were positively beaming.

It all felt too easy for Bangalore. Once Rajasthan Royals had allowed Royal Challengers Bangalore put up 180, you felt the result of the match was a foregone conclusion. Rajasthan just haven’t been the team they were in the first two weeks of the IPL.

Expecting another Watson encore was a little too much. But Steven Smith’s wicket pretty much finished the game. Rahane hung in grimly, but the required rate had reached gargantuan dimensions. Once he perished, Rajasthan collapsed like a sack of potatoes.

It turned out to be a borefest. Bangalore didn’t even play at a full 100% and still ran out winners by 71 runs. Rajasthan can only lick their wounds and wonder what went wrong as they head home.

Mandeep tangoes with ABD

RCB and Sunrisers Hyderabad were similarly placed at the start of the tournament. Both had an extremely top-three-heavy batting lineup. But where RCB evolved and Sunrisers fell behind was in the performances of their respective middle orders. Hyderabad’s middle order failed to come good, which ultimately cost them a chance in the playoffs. In contrast, RCB’s middle order has evolved and has now carried them to just a step away from the final.

Not to say Gayle and Kohli didn’t start well. After all, 38/0 after 5 overs isn’t exactly bad. But even when Gayle and Kohli were dismissed in quick succession, there was no reason to worry. AB De Villiers was still there. And RCB’s middle order, consisting of Mandeep and Sarfaraz, had already proved its mettle.

It was Mandeep who stepped up again on Wednesday night. The maturity in his batting has been quite a revelation. Just a few weeks ago, he kept his cool to hit two sixes off Andre Russell to seal a vital last over victory for Bangalore over Kolkata. This innings was one more display of his ice-cool temperament.

Between the eighth and fourteenth overs, De Villiers scored only 16 off 19 balls, relatively slow for someone of his calibre. But Mandeep at the other end ensured that RCB were never bogged down. He dished out a variety of sizzling strokes to keep RCB’s flag flying high, striking at a rate of well above 140.

In the fifteenth over, De Villiers shook off the trusses and was in his element. And that’s when RCB sealed the game. ABD shrugged off his slow start to accelerate, hitting Ankit Sharma for two sixes first and then dishing out ruthless punishment to Chris Morris. As he raced along, Mandeep immediately changed his game – from being the aggressor, he started pushing the singles to De Villiers, recognising that the great had found his groove. The RCB management have every reason to be proud of Mandeep’s maturity.

De Villiers finally ran himself out but the damage had already been done. The Royal Challengers finished on 180/4, a formidable target.

Rajasthan’s chariot comes unstuck

Rajasthan’s only chance lay in a strong start. When Watson smashed Starc for two consecutive boundaries in the first over, it seemed like they were on course.

But it was a false dawn. Watson chased a wide one and nicked it. A needless shot, you would say, but when you’re chasing a big score, you really need to go for everything.

With Ajinkya Rahane at the crease, it still seemed possible. But no one took the responsibility to rally around him. A well-directed shorter ball took care of Sanju Samson and ended his unhappy IPL. Steven Smith has not been able to carry his good form from the World Cup into the IPL and he departed soon after, trying to smash David Wiese over extra-cover, but only managing to give a dolly to ABD.

At 61/3 in nine overs, Rajasthan were staring down the barrel. Rahane was caught in a fix over whether to accelerate or preserve his wicket. In the process, far too many dot balls were played out, the required rate jumping constantly.

When it touched 14, Rahane could no longer afford to play it safe. But Yuzuvendra Chahal has been one of RCB’s stars this season, and he ensured that there would be no twists in the tale. Rahane tried to slog-sweep a flatter delivery from Chahal, but it was faster than he expected and he couldn’t strike it cleanly. An easy catch to ABD again, and that was that.

It was a tame end to proceedings thereafter. Faulkner and Binny fell soon after and Rajasthan collapsed to 95/8. They couldn’t even play out their full quota of 20 overs, losing their last wicket in the last ball of the nineteenth over.

RCB have the momentum

The IPL moves to Ranchi now, where the Royal Challengers will face off against the Chennai Super Kings on MSD’s home turf. Kohli will know that RCB have the momentum and may come out as favourites against Chennai. His team is ticking all the boxes at the moment and it is going to require an especially strong performance from CSK to get past the boys from Bangalore.