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Last May, with a place in the Indian Premier League (IPL) final at stake, much was expected from the most formidable top 3 players that the Twenty20 format has ever seen. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) had routed Rajasthan Royals in their previous game, with A.B. de Villiers smashing 66 from 38 balls. But against the vastly experienced Chennai Super Kings (CSK)—their conquerors in the 2011 final—the Bengaluru batting juggernaut ran aground.

Chris Gayle’s 41 off 43 balls was a hit-and-miss affair, Virat Kohli made just 12, and de Villiers lasted three balls before Ashish Nehra trapped him leg before. RCB limped to 139 for 8, on the back of a sprightly 31 from Sarfaraz Khan, but Chennai managed the chase well enough to win with a ball to spare.

For RCB, third place was an improvement on three previous seasons, when they had finished fifth (2012), fifth (2013) and seventh (2014). But it once again shone the light on a questionable recruitment policy that had given the team a formidable top order and little else.

By their standards, RCB had enjoyed a decent year with the ball in 2015. Mitchell Starc, fresh off World Cup success with Australia, took 20 wickets while conceding just 6.76 runs an over. Harshal Patel took 17. Yuzvendra Chahal took some beatings (an economy rate of 8.86), but still snagged a team-high 23 wickets.

The top 3 had once again hogged the limelight. Between them, Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers managed 1,509 runs at a mind-boggling strike rate of 149.11. As had been the case in the other four seasons they had played together, though, it wasn’t quite enough.

When RCB bought Gayle, on the back of a disastrous West Indies World Cup campaign, and de Villiers, after three mixed seasons with Delhi Daredevils, hopes were high that the franchise could finally shed its nearly-men tag. They had been runners-up in 2009, in South Africa, and finished third in 2010. By 2011, Kohli, signed up in 2008 after his Under-19 World Cup-winning exploits, was mature enough to have played a vital hand in India’s World Cup final success.

That season, 2011, they stormed to the top of the table, winning nine and losing just four (in the league phase) in an expanded 10-team league. But CSK, the defending champions, beat them twice in the play-offs, with Gayle—who had slammed two 100s that season—making nought in the final.

Those two matches against Chennai had given enough clues about the team’s weaknesses. In the first qualifier, Chennai had chased down 175 comfortably. In the final, they blew RCB away by making 205. But in the seasons that followed, Vijay Mallya and RCB spent silly money on batsmen, such as Yuvraj Singh ( 14 crore in 2014), instead of strengthening the bowling spine.

On the field, the results didn’t change, with the play-offs missed in three consecutive seasons. Despite the lack of silverware, 2011 remains the franchise’s high-water mark, with an appearance in the final of the now defunct Champions League T20 as well.

The Mallya Vanity Project, as a former player once described it when we spoke of the lack of success, has startling similarities with Florentino Pérez Rodríguez’s Real Madrid Galacticos. Of course, Pérez won something, at least in the early years, but the reality never came close to matching the hype.

In July 2004, he was re-elected president of Real, the most successful side in club football. At the time, he said: “I must repeat that my policy is to try to sign the best player in the world in every position where we do not already have that. Patrick Vieira is, in my opinion, the best in the world in his position (defensive midfielder)."

Madrid never did sign Vieira. And the Galactico project that had begun so promisingly, with La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003, and the Champions League in 2002, would veer off track. Trophy-less at home and humiliated in Europe, Pérez eventually resigned in February 2006.

When he returned, in 2009, he continued with his policy of spending huge sums on the world’s most talented footballers. In nearly seven seasons since, Real have won La Liga once, and the Champions League in 2014. Domestically and in Europe, they have been in Barcelona’s shadow.

If you look at the numbers for the five (and a bit) seasons that Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers have played together, you’ll be amazed that the team has achieved so little. In RCB colours, de Villiers, generally acknowledged as the most gifted batsman in the world, has scored at a strike rate of 159.41 while averaging almost 40.15 (all figures are as of 26 April). Gayle’s strike rate has been a smidgen less (155.07), but he averages an astonishing 48.88. Thrice, he has scored more than 600 runs in a season.

Kohli took time to find his Twenty20 groove, but as he showed in the recent World Twenty20, he’s now as accomplished as anyone. In the five seasons that he has played alongside Gayle and de Villiers, Kohli averages 41.58 while striking at 159.41. Compare that to Suresh Raina, the highest run-getter in IPL history. In eight seasons with CSK, Raina scored 3,699 at 34.25. His strike rate was 139.85. But Raina has two IPL winners’ medals.

If we simplify these numbers, what they really mean is that Gayle, de Villiers and Kohli can be relied on to score 129 runs in 88 balls. Even if the rest score at just a run a ball, RCB can get a total in excess of 160. This season, with Rajasthan Royals suspended, they signed Shane Watson, whose days in royal blue fetched him an average of 36 and a strike rate in excess of 140.

Add Watson’s muscular hitting to the mix and RCB can expect to score at least 170 every game. But given Starc’s absence following ankle surgery, they might need to score considerably more to feel safe. In their second match of the 2016 season, against Delhi Daredevils, they failed to defend 191, with only Watson going for less than nine an over.

It’s a damning indictment of how RCB have hired down the years that Watson is now the leading wicket-taker in the side, having taken 61 during his eight seasons with Rajasthan Royals. R Vinay Kumar, who has led Karnataka to unprecedented success in domestic cricket, remains at the top of the all-time RCB wicket-taking charts, with 72. Of those currently active, Chahal leads the way with 38.

Kumar went to Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014 and won a title with them. In the years since, he has taken his tally to 98. Of the five men in front of him, two are Mumbai Indians teammates—Harbhajan Singh (112) and the all-time leader, Lasith Malinga (143), though his career may well be over after the latest knee injury.

The Rising Pune Supergiants have four bowlers who have taken more than 80 IPL wickets. When Gujarat Lions, the other new franchise, did their recruiting, they got Dwayne Bravo, Dale Steyn, Praveen Kumar and Ravindra Jadeja, who have more than 350 IPL wickets between them. Bangalore continue to repose faith in their batting Galacticos.

You cannot blame just the owners, though. Daniel Vettori, the coach, was one of the canniest spinners to have played the game. Allan Donald, the bowling coach, was among the most feared fast bowlers in cricket history. And Bharat Arun, the assistant coach who spent 20 months as India’s bowling coach, is also highly rated by his peers.

It’s mystifying that such a think tank resorted to a Starc-or-bust bowling strategy. Watson is a magnificent tourniquet option, but given his injury history, it would be nothing short of remarkable if he could offer RCB a full bowling season when nearly 35. After Rajasthan Royals’ incredible title run in the IPL inaugural season, he has bowled more than 40 overs just once, back in 2013.

So, if you’re an RCB fan—and the supporters do transform the M Chinnaswamy Stadium into a noisy cauldron on match days—the equation is fairly simple. The top 5 either have to chase down whatever the bowlers concede, or pile up enough runs to paper over the cracks in the bowling line-up. They did that in their opening game of the season, rattling up 227 for 4 against Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Most of all, though, they need the man who calls himself “Universe Boss" to rediscover his best form after a two-game break in Jamaica for the birth of his child. When Gayle flopped in 2014, scoring just 196 in nine matches, RCB won just five of 14 matches and finished seventh.

De Villiers has never won a major trophy with South Africa, while Kohli has yet to win the World Twenty20, despite being player of the tournament in the past two editions. It’s Gayle, despite his failures in the big games, who has the medals, with the West Indies having won the World Twenty20 in both 2012 and 2016.

Pérez and his new-age Galacticos finally won the Holy Grail, the Champions League, in 2014. The cricket franchise that has tried to emulate Real, with disastrous results, will hope that its time comes soon.

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