By the end of Sunday’s game at the Chinnaswamy stadium, Virat Kohli wore a familiar look of dejection and seemed like a man who could feel the burden of expectations on his RCB jersey-clad shoulders – an annual ritual by this stage of the IPL for three years now. Kohli held his end of the bargain – an unbeaten 44-ball 68 on a difficult batting track giving RCB enough to take the fight to KKR, despite the deflating absence of AB de Villiers. But an hour-and-a-half after Kohli had driven RCB to a par score, the team’s ordinary showing on the field undid all the efforts of their captain and handed them their fifth zero-pointer of the season.
Facing KKR at home hasn’t been a happy experience in recent times, but RCB came equipped. Their bowling staff – manned by Ashish Nehra and Andrew McDonald – worked hard on devising plans for the opening combination of Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine. Kohli shunned the idea of throwing his best bowler – Yuzvendra Chahal – at the left-handed Narine – a plan that terribly back-fired in Kolkata three weeks ago. Instead, Tim Southee and Umesh Yadav ran in, in tandem, dishing out short balls to him and fuller and straighter deliveries to Chris Lynn, in a bid to cramp both of them and invoke mistakes. The well-thought out ploys worked, but not in entirety.
Narine – who had scored 139 runs in 54 balls against RCB prior to Sunday’s run chase, including a 15-ball 50 – hopped and edged one off Southee in the first over. The ball lobbed up off the shoulder of the bat but fell marginally short of Kohli, who ran forward and put in a dive but couldn’t get his hands together in time to get it under the ball. On another day, Narine’s stubborn attempts to cut and pull would’ve resulted in catches to the fielders inside the circle, but on Sunday, they either found no-man’s land or the fence.
But these were still encouraging signs. It meant RCB bowlers were closest to executing their detailed planning, the continuation of which was key to win the you-blink-I-hit-contest. In the fourth over, Lynn presented RCB with the chance to hit when he was batting on 7, but they chose to blink instead. Murugan Ashwin ran a few steps backwards from his cover position before settling under a leading edge but juggled it twice before spilling it. The reaction of bewilderment smacked across the faces of Kohli and Chahal was tough to hide, what with slo-mo video replays on giant screens, but RCB couldn’t afford a drop in intensity.
Chahal would return to bowl another over in the powerplay – one riddled with exceptional leg spin bowling that Lynn couldn’t quite wrap his head [or bat] around. But that’s as far Chahal’s domination could go as Lynn managed to survive it. By the end of six overs, KKR had 51 runs on the board courtesy their attack against Umesh Yadav’s opening spell [24 off 2 overs] and were comfortably ahead on Duckworth-Lewis-Stern calculations when rain made a brief appearance during the seventh over.
“Those guys [Lynn and Narine] have played really well against us in the past, and we put in a lot of effort today. I think they [Nehra and McDonald] put in a lot of hard work into how we’re going to bowl at Sunil Narine and Chris Lynn in particular. It is frustrating when you create chances and they don’t go to hand,” said McCullum,, who was left to brood over ‘what ifs’ during a period that KKR eventually managed to do better in.
“I thought the way we bowled in the first six overs, the scoreboard probably didn’t reflect how well we executed our plans, and that can happen sometimes when they’ve got guy who like to free their arms. If we had got early wickets on the back of efforts we put, I think the result would’ve been a lot different.”
“If you look at the way we executed our plans – where we wanted the ball to be bowled, we actually bowled there. We created chances, we didn’t just execute those chances. I thought overall the bowling was good. This was actually the best 10 overs we’ve had as a group for a while. I think we had our chances in the field and we didn’t take those. Don’t want to be too harsh on the bowlers. We should’ve backed them up with our fielding.”
Right after the 20-odd minutes of rain break, Ashwin had his moment of redemption. The first ball of his spell consumed Narine and allowed RCB a chance to regain some foothold that had largely belonged to the chasers until that point. But that expectation quickly went up in smoke courtesy an excellently strategised second-wicket partnership between Lynn and Robin Uthappa.
Lynn has made quite a sober start to his IPL campaign this year and has particularly struggled against the spinners [four dismissals in seven against them]. He’d managed just one half-century prior to the game in Bengaluru and was set for another failure if not for Ashwin’s benevolence. Uthappa joined him when Lynn had played out 24 balls for his 29 and was yet to look completely convincing. KKR’s No.3 batsman summoned all his experience and took the pressure off the Australian while also ensuring Narine’s exit wouldn’t create a dip which RCB could take advantage of. What followed was a game-defining 31-ball partnership worth 49 runs, of which Uthappa scored 36. More importantly, he hogged the strike against the spinners – facing 13 off the 18 balls against Chahal and Ashwin in that period – and shielded Lynn while also scoring quick runs. “With Robbie [Uthappa] coming in at No.3, [he is] taking the pressure off myself when the spinners bowl the majority of their overs. He’s a class player and he just goes and backs himself,” Lynn said. When the Aussie did face the spinners, he swore by the sweep shot to get him out of trouble.
“It wasn’t your typical T20 game of cricket with the ball flying around. So we had to find a way. For me it was, sweep shots, getting on the end. It was challenging, but yeah, we had one bloke at one end anchoring the innings. Blokes who come in like Robbie and DK [Dinesh Karthik] play little crucial knocks. That was very important for us,” he added.
A big contributing factor for Uthappa’s cameo was also Ashwin’s inability to maintain consistent lines. The brief spell of rain afforded extra bit of turn for the spinner, but he couldn’t maximise it. Uthappa hit two fours and a six in the nine balls he faced from Ashwin, reversing the impact created by Narine’s exit.
RCB’s night was not always set for doom. They had their moments and even looked set to put a lid on their death overs misery. In the five overs between the 12th and the 16th, KKR could manage just 35 runs. Lynn’s uncannily cautious approach, Uthappa’s dismissal in the 13th over, Nitish Rana’s back injury and Andre Russell’s first-ball duck made enough room for RCB to stage a late comeback. But their dropping standards on the field kept meddling with their ambition to make an unexpected dash for victory.
The fifth ball of the 17th over from Mohammed Siraj demonstrated how fine margins work in T20 cricket. Dinesh Karthik, who’d just arrived a ball before, turned one towards point and called for a quick single. Lynn responded in the affirmative but was nowhere close to the crease when Southee took a shy at the stumps and missed. RCB’s sloppiness in backing up the throw prompted Karthik to sneak in a second, but once again Lynn was struggling to make his ground. Luckily for him, the throw from the deep was wayward and Siraj couldn’t force a run out. Karthik regained strike and finished the 14-run over with a four through covers, bringing down the equation from 43 off 24 to 29 off 18. All this while Lynn had crawled to a 49-ball 55. Allowing him to turn over the strike at crucial junctures was as big as letting him off with a dropped catch earlier.
Southee’s third over – and 14th of the innings – may have played a big role in reviving RCB hopes, but he couldn’t quite replicate that in his fourth. Both Lynn and Karthik collected boundaries to further narrow down the deficit, before Shubman Gill arrived and finished off the chase with five balls to spare.