Marquee Indian cricketer: ☑️
Superstar overseas signings: ☑️
A history of big-ticket auction purchases: ☑️
Rich franchise: ☑️
A much-talked about team: ☑️
Brilliant home stadium: ☑️
Passionate fan base: ☑️

Number of Indian Premier League titles in ten years: Zero.

This last figure doesn’t augur well for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, especially when you consider that Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders have all won two titles each, and are on the same high pedestal as Bangalore in this league. So, what has gone wrong?

Missing KL Rahul this season

It is not easy to leave Chris Gayle out of any T20 playing eleven. Whether you are a highly-paid captain in a lucrative franchise tournament, or just picking a fantasy eleven on some random cricket website, there is always that ‘what if’ question lingering about the big-hitting opener. Will he go big or will he fizzle out – it is an eternal unknown regarding the ‘Universe Boss’.

In both 2016 and 2017, Virat Kohli recognized that Gayle isn’t the force he used to be in his early showings for the Royal Challengers. The stormy innings have become less frequent nowadays, and there is a growing tendency to hog vital deliveries instead of providing a slam-bang start to the innings. This was first identified – and rectified – last season, as Kohli brought in KL Rahul to do the mooring job.

A lot is said about Kohli’s unprecedented run of form the previous year, and a tally of 973 runs from 16 matches is no mean feat. But Rahul’s ordinary-looking (in comparison to Kohli) 397 runs were the actual bedrock on which Bangalore steamed to the final. While the captain was busy demolishing opposition bowling attacks, Rahul dropped anchor and provided the rich vein of form (four consecutive half-centuries) any team needs from their secondary batsmen.

Vipin Pawar / IPL/ SPORTZPICS
Vipin Pawar / IPL/ SPORTZPICS

This season, with Rahul missing out due to injury, Bangalore had no one to turn to when Gayle, Kohli or AB de Villiers didn’t fire at all. Their think-tank played around with different combinations – that included dropping Gayle as well as Shane Watson at different times – but they missed that one batsman who could just score on a consistent basis and help them get out of this losing rut.

To put it into context, here is a simple statistic; in 2017 IPL, not a single Royal Challengers’ batsman crossed Rahul’s total run-tally of from last season. Kohli topped again with 308 runs from 10 games. When not a single batsman crosses the 400-mark in a 14-match T20 season, nothing else – injuries or bowling combination – really matters.

Bangalore’s glaring team imbalance

Rahul’s absence only covers the 2017 season, however. For a majority of the past nine years, the Royal Challengers have been battling a glaring team balance with no end in sight.

In the initial three-year cycle from 2008-2010, this franchise was in search of an identity. It had begun with a poor showing under Rahul Dravid in 2008, but owner Vijay Mallya quickly sought to set things right. Kevin Pietersen came in at $1.55 million and they finished runners-up in 2009. The following year, Anil Kumble shepherded this side to semi-finals once again. The future looked certain, atleast on paper.

Then, in 2011, the IPL was almost reset and teams were given a chance to offset their troubles with fresh auctions, a way to balance the equation if you will. The Royal Challengers decided to retain Kohli alone and invested in him as future captain, a sound decision of course. But some of their purchases in that auction were questionable – Saurabh Tiwary for a whopping $1.6 million and Cheteshwar Pujara for $700,000.

It spawned a spate of poor decisions thereafter, one after another, every year. Sample these: R Vinay Kumar came in for $1 million in 2012. A year later, they bought RP Singh (who hadn’t played international cricket since 2011) for $400,000 USD as well as Jaydev Unadkat for $525,000.

In 2014, Royal Challengers purchased Yuvraj Singh for $2.33 million (only to let him go next season). In 2015, they paid $1.8 million (approximately) for Dinesh Karthik. In 2016, Shane Watson arrived for $1.5 million (approximately).

What is the common thread herein? How many high-profile buys do you see under the bowlers’ category?

When Vinay Kumar, Unadkat and Singh failed to provide the desired results in 2012-13, their think-tank looked at further investment, only this time it was in overseas bowlers. Mitchell Starc, Ravi Rampaul and Albie Morkel all came on-board in 2014. Sean Abbott, David Weise and Adam Milne were bought in 2015. Iqbal Abdullah and Samuel Badree came in 2016.

Only Starc, Badree and Milne have made some sort of long-term impression, and stayed put in the team’s plans over the course of last couple seasons. There is an identifiable pattern herein. While the Royal Challengers have always made one big-money purchase every year in keeping with their stature, there was a discernable shift in thinking since 2012. While retaining their firepower in batting (read Gayle and AB de Villiers), they have looked to bring about balance in bowling wares.

For this purpose, they have targeted both proper bowling talents as well as all-rounders, suggested from the shift to overseas picks in 2014 as aforementioned. There is some stability in approach and strategy to be found in here, and yet, the desired outcome hasn’t come through. The reasoning is pretty obvious, herein.

Kohli’s captaincy

Peculiarly enough, despite a record-setting season, Kohli was not able to guide Bangalore home in 2016. While they made the finals, bowling still remained a worry. In the summit clash against Sunrisers Hyderabad, they leaked runs as Yuvraj Singh and Ben Cutting cut loose in the death overs, pun unintended. Hyderabad went from 140/3 in 15 overs to 208/7 in 20 overs. It proved to be the difference in the end.

In that final, Bangalore did what they do best – score runs. Gayle and Kohli put on 114 runs for the opening stand, and ultimately they finished 200/7, falling just short. Despite amassing a staggering mountain of 900-plus runs in one season, there is only so much one star batsman can do, as hauling an imbalanced team across the finish line requires more. Sometimes, captaincy is just more arduous than it seems.

Among Indian cricketers to lead IPL franchises, Kohli is only third after MS Dhoni (Chennai Super Kings) and Gautam Gambhir (Kolkata Knight Riders) in terms of time/games spent in charge. Both of them have two titles to their credit. Even Rohit Sharma (Mumbai Indians), who took over captaincy duties mid-way through 2013 (after Kohli), has won the IPL twice.

Isn’t it a bit bothersome that the current Indian skipper – a long-term choice, who has done well enough in Test cricket, but is only now starting to lead in ODIs/T20Is – hasn’t won the premier domestic limited-overs competition (no, not Vijay Hazare Trophy) in the country?

Ron Gaunt - Sportzpics - IPL
Ron Gaunt - Sportzpics - IPL

IPL performances count for a lot in this country, and they certainly hold a sway over the billion fans if not the selectors, as seen from the recent Champions Trophy selection. If that is a publicly acknowledged yardstick with which we measure cricketers’ performances, shouldn’t captaincy be judged in the same manner? This is where Kohli the skipper – not the batsman – alone comes under spotlight.

There is no denying that a player, nay captain, of his stature enjoys irrefutable authority over how any particular season of the franchise shapes up. In a press conference this season, Steve Smith asserted how he had told Rising Pune Supergiant’s owners to ‘get Ben Stokes whatever the price’. And Smith was announced as captain only this year. So, imagine Kohli’s sphere of influence over the decisions Royal Challengers make.

Does that make him culpable for some of the more bizarre decisions Bangalore have made over the years, and not just this season alone? The high-money one-season purchase of Yuvraj, the decision to go in for bowlers’ rotation without settling into a particular bowling combination, or even resting Watson for a long stretch after Kohli returned from injury. What about the high-money purchase (approximately $2 million) of Tymal Mills based on his performances in just three T20Is in the India-England series in January?

Neither Kohli nor the franchise will come out and say whose unilateral decisions these were, or even if they were indeed so. It simply doesn’t work that way. However, it doesn’t take focus away from the simple fact that India’s long-term limited-overs’ captain has been found out to be a one-trick pony in the IPL.

Time and again, Bangalore have placed all their eggs in one basket filled with big-hitting batsmen, and failed to balance it out with proper bowling resources. Never mind the opposition, or match situation, they have rinsed and repeated this same formula, with only ever-so-slight change in personnel. In short, since Kumble and Dravid moved on, the Royal Challengers have basically done the same thing, year upon year, and with stubbornness.

So, where does it leave them after a disappointing season, an understatement given they were pre-season tournament favourites? “We have to start fresh as a franchise. Maybe, it is a blessing in disguise. It depends on how many players we can retain. But we do have guys who we have identified,” Kohli said after signing off the 2017 season with a win against Delhi Daredevils.

At the time of writing, it is still unknown if the IPL governing council will allow franchises to retain players in 2018. Even so, need of the hour for the Royal Challengers is to unassumingly tear up their entire existing game plan, and chalk up a new, different strategy than the one they have tried for nearly a decade now.

Simply put, Kohli needs to get back to the drawing board and scrub it clean off the one-dimensional clutter on it presently.