There was one major question surrounding Royal Challengers Bangalore ahead of the fifth season of the IPL: Will Chris Gayle be able to produce a season as stunning as last year's, when he smashed his way to the highest number of runs while almost single-handedly taking Bangalore to the final?
The answer, going into the team's final match of IPL 5, was a resounding yes in terms of the West Indian's batting exploits. A record 733 runs, inclusive of 59 sixes and seven centuries to go with a breathtaking century. But unlike 2011, Bangalore failed to make it past the group stage – the first time since 2008 that they failed to do that in the IPL. Gayle's feats were paramount to Bangalore's success, but this time around they failed to live up to their efforts of 2011. And that they stumbled in their most important match of the season was indicative of how they have failed to win the moments that matter, a trait that has become synonymous with this team.
Needing to win their final game of IPL 5, RCB batsmen failed to chase modest total of 133 after their bowlers have done exceptionally well. They were coming off a resounding win fashioned by an outstanding Gayle century, but imploded in a low-scoring chase to crash out of the tournament and allowed Chennai Super Kings to remain at fourth place at the end of the league stage.
So what happened when push came to shove, after Gayle’s century gave Bangalore a lifeline? When it mattered most, the batting line-up was guilty of choosing the rash over the reliable. Tillakaratne Dilshan swung across the line to red-hot Dale Steyn and was given lbw; Gayle made room to smash Steyn through the offside and was bowled; AB de Villiers drove in the air to short cover; Mayank Agarwal went back and across instead of playing straight; and Kohli attempted a repeat of a lofted on-drive and found long-on to his sheer disgust.
de Villiers can be forgiven for driving on the rise, for it is a shot he most often than not succeeds in scurrying to the boundary, but the likes of Dilshan, Gayle, Agarwal and Kohli fell apart in the face of some accurate bowling Steyn, Amit Mishra and Ashish Reddy. Each of these batsmen fell while trying to force the pace. Perhaps it was the adrenalin, perhaps not.
Was it surprising that RCB lost the plot in their most crucial match? Not really, if you look into their past record. Barring 2008 when they were dogged by a muddled outlook and ended up as second from last, Bangalore have reached the knockout stage only to lose the plot. They surprised many in 2009 by reaching the final in South Africa, but were clearly overawed by the occasion and froze while chasing 144 against Deccan Chargers. They scraped into the knock-out stage in 2010 only to be overwhelmed by the ruthless Mumbai Indians in the semi-finals. Having earned the right to qualify for the Champions League Twenty20, RCB brushed aside Deccan in the third-place playoff.
So what happens to RCB in crunch situations? Kohli, who has been a part of the RCB set-up since the IPL was formed, once told this writer in defense of criticism that the franchise was reliant on only a few players that Bangalore were a champion side who had players capable of winning matches from any situation. Now, after RCB failed to make the playoffs, the question of the team not knowing how to win big moments is merited.
In 2011 they topped the group stage with 19 points, only to lose the first Qualifier to Chennai. That they went into the playoffs as the No. 1 team allowed Bangalore another shot at the final, and in the Eliminator they thrashed Mumbai Indians by 43 runs. Having made their second IPL final, Bangalore turned up and were walloped by CSK.
Bangalore's tendency to choke under pressure isn't restricted to the IPL. Having failed to make it past the group stage in the 2009 and 2010 CLT20 tournaments, they stormed into the final in 2011 on the back of runs from Gayle and Virat Kohli. Come the biggest day, however, and Bangalore reprised their choke of 2009 to be bowled out for 108 chasing 140. This habit of not knowing how to cope in knock-out matches is reminiscent of South Africa’s proclivity for choking.
After Bangalore's win over Delhi Daredevils on Thursday, as the team celebrated in the hotel with champagne and cake, the coach Ray Jennings while trying to leave the party had told his players: “We have won a game not the World Cup!” Jennings’ attitude toward victory was in keeping with his mantra all during his tenure as RCB coach – that the ultimate goal was winning the IPL and nothing counts until you achieve that. Having coached South Africa, Jennings knows a thing or two about losing the matches that really count.
Bangalore have improved tremendously since 2008, but need to address this habit of choking. Until they do, they will remain the South Africa of Twenty20 cricket.