Faf du Plessis and Hardik Pandya
Royal Challengers Bengaluru captain Faf fu Plessis (left) and Mumbai Indians captain Hardik Pandya. Du Plessis’ brilliant batting kept alive RCB’s playoff hopes, while Pandya’s woes deepened as Mumbai’s chances faded with the loss to Kolkata Knight Riders. Image Credit: AFP

What’s happening to the Mumbai Indians and the Royal Challengers Bengaluru? It isn’t surprising if you have been watching the Indian Premier League. Both teams have been fighting to stay away from the basement in the points table this season. And their recent fixtures at home amply illustrated their struggles.

Mumbai Indians lost to the Kolkata Knight Riders at the Wankhede Stadium for the first time in 12 years. Weirdly, Friday’s loss that dented their eliminator prospects came after a spell of dominance. Baffling, isn’t it? We’ll come to that later.

Royal Challengers Bengaluru nearly emulated Mumbai and almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Dinesh Karthik’s counterattacking strokeplay amid an RCB mindfade kept out the Gujarat Titans’ late rally and kept alive RCB’s hopes of a playoff spot. Bengaluru’s hard-fought win in front of a raucous crowd at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium prevented them from joining Mumbai at the base of the leaderboard.

How RCB nearly lost with a winning hand

RCB have always blown hot and cold in the 16 years of IPL. Three-time finalists, Bengaluru’s chase of an IPL crown tends to unravel in the absence of tight bowling in the slog overs. That has been the story of RCB’s IPL journey. What’s frustrating is their tendency to lose from winning positions.

Take Saturday’s game, for example. In front of a packed home crowd, RCB had the visitors on the mat. Considering the high-scoring games this season, Gujarat’s 147 was an under-par score.

That target was whittled down quickly by a belligerent Faf du Plessis, who blasted a 23-ball 64 and racked up 92 in the company of Virat Kohli inside the powerplay. After the skipper’s departure, Bengaluru went into a tailspin. With wickets falling around him, Kohli went into his shell before being dismissed soon. Six wickets were lost in quick time, some needlessly, as they walked into the leg-trap. But Karthik’s cool head helped stave off a looming defeat and lifted RCB to the middle of the pack with eight points.

Bengaluru very nearly threw away the match in four overs of madness. When captain Du Plessis left, they needed just 55 runs in 14 overs. A walk in the park, I’d say. But Bengaluru contrived to create a crisis that wasn’t there. Will Jacks, Rajat Patidar, Glenn Maxwell, and Cameron Green were in a tearing hurry and paid the price. Soon Kohli followed, and RCB were staring down the barrel, having lost six wickets for only 25 runs.

Why does this happen? These are professional cricketers, a battle-hardened bunch that face such situations regularly. They instinctively know how to tide over challenging situations. But they fell like dominoes. That’s pressure. It can wreck the best of teams, and RCB very nearly succumbed.

Shubman Gill’s leadership impresses

A good chunk of the credit should go to Gujarat’s young captain Shubman Gill. He may be leading the side for the first time, but Gill showed a tactical nous far beyond his 24 years. His handling of Josh Little was brilliant, and that helped Gujarat come charging back into the match.

Du Plessis hammered 20 runs from Little’s first over, the second of the innings. With other options failing, Gill bravely brought on the Irishman, who was powerless to stop Du Plessis until he miscued a bouncer. It was the left-hander’s 11th delivery, and he had leaked 34 runs by then. The dismissal encouraged Gill to bowl out Little, who grabbed three more wickets to peg back the RCB chase. That was a smart piece of captaincy, and it nearly won the match for Gujarat. But their ace leggie Rashid Khan had an off-day, and Karthik capitalised on it.

Middle order has been a problem for RCB, who seem to struggle after the opening salvo from Du Plessis and Kohli. If it was not Karthik’s late-order rescue acts, Bengaluru would have suffered Mumbai’s fate. RCB’s struggles don't bode well as the playoff race picks up momentum.

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If Gill’s captaincy stood out for Gujarat, Hardik Pandya’s poor tactical sense was glaring in the Mumbai Indians’ loss to the Kolkata Knight Riders, who were 57/5 soon after the powerplay. When half the rival batters are in the hut, most captains would have gone for the kill: they would bring on their best bowlers to snuff out the contest. But not Pandya. He chose to play safe.

Mumbai spearhead Jasprit Bumrah had bowled only one over. So did Gerald Coetzee, the South African pacer. Yet Pandya opted for a double spin attack, allowing Venkatesh Iyer (70 and Manish Pandey (42) to ride out the turbulence and take the attack to the Mumbai bowlers. That was a tactical howler from a cricketer of Pandya’s experience.

By the time Bumrah and Coetzee came on to bowl the middle overs, Iyer and Pandey were scoring briskly en route to an 83-run wicket stand that gave Kolkata a fighting chance with 169 on the board. Despite early hiccups, Mumbai’s chase was sustained by Suryakumar Yadav (56). With only needing 51 runs off the last five overs, Mumbai’s hopes died as the Kolkata bowlers strangled them.

How Pandya made a tactical error

Why didn’t Pandya turn up the heat when Gujarat were down? The reluctance was puzzling because he’s an aggressive player — a finisher who thrives in high-pressure situations. I watched Pandya smother the opposition when he led Gujarat to the IPL title on debut in 2022. The final was a splendid exhibition of Pandya’s leadership skills.

Where are those skills? Has Pandya gone soft? Maybe. It could be a reflection of a crisis of confidence. It’s no secret that Pandya’s displacement of Rohit Sharma as Mumbai captain had not gone down well with some players and most fans, who made their displeasure known. The stormy phase had passed and Mumbai even won a couple of matches before returning to their unpredictable ways.

That certainly is weighing heavily on Pandya’s mind. His body language is horrible as he sits in the hut gazing into the distance. He puts on a brave front during TV interviews, but he’s no longer his smug self, dismissing the queries with repartees. Here’s a captain struggling to keep his ship afloat.

It’s a sorry sight.