The Breakdown: How can RCB maximise home advantage?

IPL 2024

RCB have had a topsy-turvy ride at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

RCB have a strange relationship with the Chinnaswamy Stadium. They enjoy extremely partisan home support at their home ground but that has little bearing on the team's results there. Into the 17th season of the IPL, they have exactly 40 wins and 40 losses (+ 4 No Results) there: a home win percentage of 47.62% that's better than only Delhi's 42.86% in the history of the league. The record is a reflection of how RCB haven't been able to turn their home ground into an on-demand dispenser of two points. Consequently, it has affected playoffs qualification chances, so much so that RCB have now not made it to the post-league phase in each of the last four years they've played at this iconic venue.

Mike Hesson, the former Director of Cricket at RCB, oversaw a relatively successful period for the franchise when they made three straight playoffs between 2020 and 2022. As it turned out, his team was forced away from the Chinnaswamy Stadium during those three Covid years. When Hesson's RCB returned to Bengaluru last year, they found that their fortunes remained inescapably tied to the ground's unique dynamics: the short boundaries, the altitude and the true pitch. A topsy-turvy year came down to RCB needing a win at home in the final league game against Gujarat Titans, which would have made it 'four from four' for Hesson. As it turned out, even a Virat Kohli century powering a total of 197 was proved to be grossly insufficient and RCB crashed out, with a 3-4 home record for the season.

That game, in many ways, exemplified the semantics of a typical T20 game at the venue. Just how much is par? How does one go about setting a team up here? As RCB begin another season of cricket at the Chinnaswamy hoping to end their IPL duck, Hesson breaks down the different challenges that went into his stint.

Very good T20 teams around the world, say the Perth Scorchers or the Chennai Super Kings, have built their successes on great home records. This hasn't been possible for RCB. Was the magnitude of the Chinnaswamy challenge apparent right away when you arrived in late 2019?

Yes, I think, quite simply, your opposition teams all love coming to the Chinnaswamy. At least from a batting point of view. Therefore, it's like you don't have an advantage. Say Perth, it has a steep bouncing surface, it takes a long time to adjust. Chennai as you said, it [the pitch] can hold, they've got spinners that can attack the stumps all the time. So you can pick a team to suit that. When you just have a very good surface, you're also in altitude so the ball carries and the boundaries are small. It's one of those grounds where you know it's incredibly high scoring and so it evens the game up a lot. Say you were to stack up your batting in Chinnaswamy, and two of the guys at the top bat big, you could have 220/2. And now in that small ground, from a bowling point of view you are still going to be exposed. Even if you pick a strong bowling line-up, it's such a good surface, you could still end up having to chase over 220 so you need some depth in your batting. It's not really a ground that any opposition would fear going to, other than potentially the bowlers.

What was your assessment of the squad when you first arrived in 2019? How did you want to play those games at Chinnaswamy?

Look, the first thing I felt needed to be addressed was the balance of the squad. I think there was a huge focus on batting and huge emphasis on Virat and AB [de Villiers]. It was about building a balanced squad, you know sides that have done well in the past have always been 2-2. So two overseas players in the top-six, and two bowling options lower down. So spreading the talent around a little bit. Then obviously you have to try to get some more domestic talent. Part of doing that is the scouting program, but it's also trying to recruit experienced performers from a domestic point of view. So just trying to balance the spend out, so that the spend is not so much overseas focussed.

Interestingly, even in those early to mid-2010s RCB played with a 3-1 overseas combination: like Chris Gayle, de Villiers and Tillakaratne Dilshan. And one fast bowler - say Ravi Rampaul or Mitchell Starc. One might say they were even ahead of the curve because when the margin for bowling errors is so small, is it not an acceptable idea to set up to outhit the opposition?

I think you need to be able to win games with either bat or ball. That's what good sides do. You can't stack your side up with one particular part and just think that you'll fall over the line. I think that's just unrealistic. It might be entertaining to go 'whatever you get, whether it's 220 or 230, we're trying to get one more'. Now that's okay for the odd occasion but it's not going to provide you any form of consistency.

So you know, the sides that have done well... There's no doubt that CSK and MI have been the most successful franchises, there's a reason for that. It's that they actually can win games with both bat and ball. So they don't just stack one part of their game. I think it would be really naive... even though fans love the excitement of 'wow we've got this amazing batting line-up'. That's great, you can do that as well as you can. But you also need to find a balance. And that's to be a successful franchise, that's what the best sides do - win games with both disciplines. RCB for many years had always been a 3-1 franchise. They'd gone 3 overseas batting and 1 bowling. That provided entertainment but it didn't provide consistency in preceding years to 2020. So it's not a matter of it being outdated, or you can't do that any more. Or that bowlers don't win T20 tournaments. Of course they do. You have to have a balanced attack and on any given day you have to be able to win the game with either bat or ball.

But that leaves you scrambling in a very small pool of top-quality white-ball bowlers with skills to succeed at the Chinnaswamy. Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar aren't coming into the auction pool often. For a good part of the last decade, Mitchell Starc was away too...

See Chinnaswamy is an incredibly tough place to bowl so regardless of how good you are at other venues, it's quite a unique challenge. So I think that the previous balance of stacking the batting and hoping the bowlers will get you over the line is unrealistic. Because it's such a tough place to defend. I think the expectations on bowlers at Chinnaswamy need to be more realistic as well.

Just like it's easy from a batting point of view to make high scores, it's also particularly difficult to bowl. There are times when even 10 an over at the back end is very good. So it's about trying to put parameters around bowlers ... What is okay? What is an acceptable performance? Because even the very best like Jasprit (7.01 ER) and Starc (8.17 ER) have gone the distance at Chinnaswamy as well. So it's a matter of two things: getting some high-quality batters into your attack and putting an emphasis on parameters on that. And also being able to balance that out by getting some more domestic batting talent. So obviously getting the likes of Rajat Patidar, Devdutt Padikkal - they will allow you to therefore be able to go 2-2. So have 2 overseas batters and 2 overseas bowlers so you got a far better balanced line-up.

After three years, you went through the grind of playing seven home games at the Chinnaswamy in 2023... Knowing how T20 games there can be a bit of a lottery, how do you go about setting up a team there?

Yes, it's a really difficult ground to set up. But in saying that, there are certain types of bowlers that can do very well on that surface. For starters, you need 'bounce bowlers' in Chinnaswamy. It's one of those wickets where you need to bowl back of a length and Josh Hazlewood with that height and bounce.... he was an incredible bowler for that type of that surface. Mohammed Siraj was so good last year because he brought his length back with the new ball. Even though he's a swing bowler, you can't bowl a swinging length because if you do, you'll go the distance. About eight-metre length with the new ball is crucial and Siraj certainly found that beautifully last year. We also had Reece Topley, the tall bounce bowler with a left-arm angle who was out [injured] as well. So you know, getting those tall guys that can bowl that eight-metre length is critical.

Finger spin is not really a good option at Chinnaswamy (8.85 ER is worse than Wankhede's 7.85 ER). You need bowlers that are brave and are able to bowl wide off the stumps where possible.

And from a batting point of view, you need to be able to play off both feet. So the likes of Patidar...He is a very good player against both pace and spin. He's a guy who, you know, if you lose a wicket early or lose a wicket post-powerplay, he can still come in and continue that attack. By having that player, you don't have to bat all that deep, you can always play that extra bowling option.

Those two - Hazlewood and Patidar were critical players for us, probably the only shift for us from the year before when we almost went right through. And those guys are hard to replace.

And what about death bowling? RCB have constantly been at the high end of economy rates, bowling those final four overs at the Chinnaswamy. Are you looking at specialists here or do you seek variety in the attack? Because you had Chris Morris and Harshal Patel - two very different bowlers who operated at the death...

Death bowling at Chinnaswamy is not necessarily yorker bowling. You look at the stats around executing yorkers in the Chinnaswamy and the run-rate there, it's not a yorker ground. It doesn't mean you don't bowl it but it's certainly not one where you run in and try and bowl three an over. You also need three death options with variety. Yes, Chris Morris did a nice job in the UAE when he was there. Unfortunately, he had some injury concerns as well.

But once again, bowling at Chinnaswamy is very different. I think your expectation needs to change. Harshal Patel came in and was outstanding for us as a death bowler up until the last year, where he wasn't at his best. But I also think the expectation on him bowling at the death was unrealistic. I think Harshal would be the first person to say, he didn't execute as well as he could have but he had a fractured finger. I was really disappointed when he wasn't retained. I think he's one guy who knows how to bowl at Chinnaswamy and the fact he had a handful of poor games... but he had a two-and-a-half good seasons before that... and so that was a bit frustrating. To think we're going to now be bringing in somebody who hasn't bowled at Chinnaswamy very often and is going to be an expert at it straight away is unrealistic. It's a pretty tough expectation on whoever that is.

For me, you always need three different options, whoever that is. They need to be different types, off-pace bowlers, yorker bowlers and bounce bowlers. You need a real combination and most importantly, you need to be patient.

What about the pitch? How much of a say did you have in the kind of wickets prepared at the Chinnaswamy?

Not a lot of say, the ground staff at Chinnaswamy just try and produce the best pitch they can. Obviously, they are very good at it. 2017 was purely an aberration due to the aeration system [but] outside of that, the pitch has been exceptional.

How much did the arrival of the Impact Substitute ruling further hamper plans at the Chinnaswamy?

It's a good point and it's certainly changed the game. You have a situation when you have Andre Russell coming in at No.8. You had a power player coming in at 9. You get a team seven down and you think you might have an end open and in walks Krunal Pandya. It's particularly challenging. The role of the death bowler is even more difficult now. You used to try and get sides five down in 15 [overs] which would expose an end. Now you need to get the team to be seven down before you can even think that you've got an end open. Possibly even then you don't. It also means that those overs through the middle, sides come harder at you as well. If you are not picking wickets through the middle then the death gets longer and longer. The last thing you want to do at Chinnaswamy is the death going on for longer than 4-5 overs. Because it's very difficult. That risk-reward type of bowler, where you are really trying to take wickets is a really important one, because you are just not going to be able to close teams down at the Chinnaswamy.

You had a legspinner, who played those risk-reward odds. Yuzvendra Chahal took 51 wickets at 7.74 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium...

I think there's been some really poor reporting on this. People didn't see how the auction unfolded. The reality was that we wanted to buy back Yuzvendra Chahal in the auction. That was what we said. The issue was that Yuzi was to come out at No.65 in the auction, which to this day is ridiculous. The fact that he wasn't in one of the top-two groups in the auction being the bowler he is, it's hard to understand who even put that list together. That in itself, when we did all the mock auctions, made life incredibly difficult. So we knew that probably 3-4 teams had a bigger purse than us when we got to that point. All through the mock auction, we thought if we hung on to INR 12 crore for Chahal, we could still get outbid. Bear in mind [Ravi] Bishnoi had already been picked up by LSG, Rashid Khan by GT. We knew that Hasaranga or Chahal were probably the two best legspinners outside of those two. So the situation for us was 'okay, we could miss out on Hasaranga, who obviously was a multi-skilled player, and we could hang on for Chahal, but if we get outbid then we could end up with no legspinner.

We were really stuck in the middle. We thought we'll have a bid at Hasaranga. We allocated 11 crores for either one of the two. We got to 10.75 crores when the auctioneer fell off when we were having a bidding war with Punjab Kings. So when we got back, they pulled out and we got Hasaranga at 10.75 crores. Which was great, but which meant that we couldn't go for Chahal. Bear in mind that we could have easily been outbid. The fact that he went for what he did [INR 6.50 crores to RR] was because other teams thought the same... that they could hang on and end up saving a big amount of purse for a player they could still get outbid for. To this day, I'm frustrated by that. Especially now that they're back at Chinnaswamy and Yuzvendra Chahal is an expert bowling at that venue. It was the circumstances. There was a lot of talk that we didn't want Chahal, which was nonsense. We were in meetings for days with the management group discussing how we could manipulate that but at the end it became too challenging. At the end we were as frustrated as Yuzi was.

Let's get to the batting. Do RCB maximise their resources? Because even in the three straight years that you qualified to the playoffs, your net boundary percentage (boundaries/balls scored - conceded) was in the negative... Across all IPL editions, 77% of the teams that finished in the top-four have a net boundary percentage in the green. And in RCB's case, the lull is typically through the middle-overs...

Bear in mind we didn't play at the Chinnaswamy in any of these years. What you have to do is look at the players you have in your lineup and plan around that. For example, Virat is an exceptional manipulator of the ball in the middle overs, but he doesn't hit as many boundaries as some others. Therefore you need to surround him with players that complement that. There are other sides that can go from both ends. We found our best way was to maximise the talent we had.

So did you go and have a conversation with Virat about his spin play in the middle-overs?

That's the way the game works sometimes. Obviously, the field changes but the situation dictates the approach. Also, Virat plays for the team. He's not driven by personal numbers and he couldn't care about the volume runs. It's about what he can do to help win a game. Last year, the way Faf [du Plessis] and Virat batted and then the way Virat and Maxi [Glenn Maxwell] operated was exceptional. Because we had to shuffle with No.3, Lomror... Shahbaz... we probably compromised on that. Lomror was probably better suited for No.5 but we had to maneuver things. Maxwell's job was to take down spin, Virat is obviously a high-quality player of high pace. So they are there to take down different types of bowlers. It's not a question of asking a player, it's a matter of reading a situation. What does the team need at this stage? As the [2023] season went on, and the middle order wasn't contributing as much, that top-order took on even further responsibility. That in itself can mean that you are more conservative in the middle than you'd like. I really didn't see that from Virat last year. He was exceptional in the way he read the situation.

RCB ended up investing in a lot of all-rounders like Shahbaz Ahmed or Mahipal Lomror to give them depth but the Impact Player ruling sort of made them somewhat redundant and called for more specialists...

We always felt we needed to bat deeper... I mean the ability to do that obviously allows you to go harder at the top, you know rather than feel like you need to be conservative. It almost frees up your top order to play with a lot more freedom, knowing that there is depth in there. Often as a top-three, top-four batter, if you are not confident in what's below you, then you can be more conservative than what you'd like to be, whether that's conscious or subconscious, it is real. Talking about the group, that ability to add some depth to the group is critical. That said, you've still got to be able to do your main skill well. Lomror was primarily there as a left-hand spin hitter. The fact he can bowl a little bit can be helpful in certain conditions, certainly not at Bengaluru. We played in Lucknow, Chepauk where you can bowl flat into the ground, it can be effective. Depth of batting is great but you've got to be very good in your skill and probably more so at Chinnaswamy.

But the depth hasn't worked out as you'd hoped. Virat had to drop anchor and score a 100 even in that last league game of 2023 to give the score some respectability...

I think the year before Shabhaz [Ahmed] and DK [Dinesh Karthik] were probably the best performers because they got in early , they had to do more batting through the season. In many ways, your middle order is a by-product of your top order. The top-order was pretty effective last year. Three of the top-four were exceptional whereas the year before they weren't so prolific. And therefore the others had to step up. Really it's very difficult to get that balance in terms of... you want your top order to do their job and fundamentally they did it superbly but the icing on the cake didn't come from the lower-order. There's no doubt we suffered from that. It's a tough balancing act.

In an interview with the club, Virat Kohli once spoke about 'big franchise pressure' when talking about the expectations around the club and the trophy drought. Did you feel such a thing when you switched from Punjab Kings in 2019, to another team without an IPL title?

I think every franchise has high expectations, so I don't think RCB was anything different. The pressure of the fact that RCB has never won the IPL is something that's talked about quite a lot. That's something that can potentially hold the team back because often you can think about the end result before you actually worry too much about the process. For RCB to be successful, it's really important that they don't start thinking about the end result before they get their ducks in a row. That's something we really stressed on when I got there.