If we reach playoffs consistently, we will win the IPL one day: RCB's Rajesh Menon

As RCB takes on KKR in the IPL play-off, the vice president and the head of the Bengaluru-based franchise, shares how the team turned around from a last-place finish in 2019 to make it to two consecutive playoffs

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Oct 11, 2021 09:45:44 AM IST
Updated: Oct 11, 2021 10:42:14 AM IST

I've been a journalist for over a decade, working across newspapers and magazines. At Forbes India, I write and edit stories on varied themes. I am a sports buff — turning to the back pages of the newspaper first— and keenly follow current affairs, pop culture and new trends at the intersection of politics, business and culture. Being an inveterate foodie, I often end up writing about it.

Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli (right) and teammate AB de Villiers during an IPL match in 2019. The two high-profile players mentor youngsters and contribute towards building a cohesive team culture for RCB. Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Despite a star cast that comprises international superstars like Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) has not been able to lift the coveted Indian Premier League (IPL) trophy yet. But that hat has not left the team management sleepless; instead the RCB administration has engineered a revamp within that has seen the team finish in the playoffs–the top half of the IPL table–for the last two years, turning around from two bottom-of-the-heap finishes since 2017. Rajesh Menon, RCB’s vice-president and head, breaks down the principles on which RCB 2.0 has been built. Edited excerpts:  
 
How does a cricket franchise like RCB add value to the brand of Diageo?
RCB is a 100 percent subsidiary of Diageo India, it operates independently and we have our own board. The franchise is an integral part of Diageo's business and its performance, and it contributes a significant amount to the operating profit. It makes RCB a critical and one of the strategic assets of Diageo India.
 
Since RCB is a cricket team and a lifestyle brand, it gives the right kind of impetus to Diageo’s entire business as we are in the space of connecting with the Gen Z-millennial population. If you look at RCB vis-à-vis other IPL teams, we have not pegged ourselves to a particular State, even though we come from Bengaluru. Our philosophy spans the length and breadth of India, so does our fan base. And there is a reason for that.
 
When we visualised this brand, we felt even though the brand is born in Bengaluru, it should be there to build the nation. New-age Indians are risk-takers, not like those from the 90s or the early 2000s. This young India wants to move into uncharted territory to figure out their life. Hence they want to play bold, their philosophy is they won't figure out what's on the other side unless they explore it. That is exactly the philosophy for RCB as well and we have manifested it in whatever we do. Look at the team, for instance. We’ve had Chris Gayle, KL Rahul before, now Glenn Maxwell, AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli. The brand of cricket that we are known for is completely different from what others play. Our philosophy of #PlayBold is reflected in our numbers—of runs, sixes, individual scores, what have you.
 
A year ago, Mike Hesson (now the head coach) was brought in as the director of cricket operations, a designation used in the RCB set-up for the first time. Diageo’s chief commercial officer Prathmesh Mishra has now joined as the chairman of RCB. What strategic changes have been brought about, resulting in the turnaround for the team this year?
Two years ago, when we finished at the bottom of the table, and I took over the business, I felt there was a need for change, a complete relook. We wanted to look at what's happening outside, with the other sporting leagues and clubs—the Barcelonas and the Manchester Uniteds of the world—and figure out the right structure for our team.
 
The first one was creating the right administrative structure—there has to be a role called director of cricket operations and there should be a cricketing set-up that reports to him. Along with that, we built up a lot of capabilities, like revamping our scouting programme, both international, national, and, within national, into the hinterlands. That's how we got to look at the range from Glenn Maxwell to KS Bharat. We also used AI for scouting, and included the theory of 'multiple eyes, multiple times'—meaning, it is not just one scout looking at one talent, but multiple eyes analysing the same talent multiple times.
 
The processes we have set are world class, and are aligned with our vision to be the best performing, most-trusted and respected T20 franchise, both on and off the field. We have clear ambitions, must-dos, leadership standards for these, which have come together to work for us. The results are clear. We have reached the playoffs in the last two seasons. We ended up fourth last year, and this year we finished the league stage at the third spot.     
 
What are the main pillars on which RCB’s new vision is built?
We have a one-pager on this, starting with the ambition—to create the best performing, most trusted and respected T20 franchise. Within that there are two pieces—'where to win' and 'outcome we will achieve'. The answer to the first is on the field of play, fans and business, and the second is play to win by playing bold and smart. The third aspect of this is credibility and trust (by all stakeholders and doing the business the right way), and efficient growth, while the fourth aspect is highly engaged team and fans.
 
To achieve these, what are the must-dos? Consistent success, quality of leadership, championing inclusivity in terms of shared commitments, accountability etc. Then comes the leadership standard and value systems–mottos like win through execution, inspire through purpose, invest in talent.
 
One of the philosophies I believe in is the role of the support staff and their continuity. We have looked at grooming our support staff. For example, as we speak, we have rolled out the individual development plan, where we've tried to understand which of the support staff require training. There is a learning curve for everybody. At RCB, we believe 70 percent of your learning comes from being on the job, 20 percent is mentoring and the rest through external interaction. We have created a learning cycle for our key support staff—we want our talent to come in, stay and grow with us. That is how a team culture is formed.

One of your players, Glenn Maxwell, has completely turned around from mediocre IPLs to a standout performance this season. How has your structure enabled him to become one of the most improved players this IPL?

One of the things we clearly looked at was job descriptions for our players. T20 cricket has evolved from what it was 5-6 or 10 years ago. We had an assessment of the job descriptions and named those—like, Player 1 had to do this, Player 2 had to do something else, and so on and so forth. Plus, what were the need gaps for each of these players, what were the stats and why have they succeeded before in doing certain things. Based on these, we set very clear roles for them.
 
For example, Maxwell's position was No 4, and we put down why we thought he would succeed. We also knew who else would go in the auction for him and what would be their threshold; our mock auction videos would tell you. And that's exactly how it happened—Chennai Super Kings (CSK) went for Maxwell before we took him. Once we got the team and roles in place, all that remained was to liberate these players. For Maxi, we had a clear understanding with him that this is his role, and then we backed him. We back everybody. It is not about giving them one or two outings. Look at how that's worked for Devdutt Padikkal. And we are proud of what we do. We don’t sulk on days we lose–that day is exactly the same as the day we win.
 
IPL is a tournament where a team comes together for a short period of time. How does one build a cohesive unit in that, especially in a split season like this?

The last two IPLs have been different from the previous years. We had one tournament in September 2020, the next one in April 2021 and the last leg of that is happening now. There's very little gap between the tournaments. Hence, the team and the support staff have mentally remained in the IPL bubble. [Otherwise], since this is a continuous process, we keep interacting with everybody, both at a professional and a personal level. One of the major roles of the director of cricket operations is to bring the people together, both physically and on the digital space. We keep our dialogue going all the time–we chat with them at least once every 40-45 days. That apart, while we don't meet all the players individually during the off season, there are cricket series going on throughout the world, round the year. Some RCB player or the other keeps playing against another RCB mate. That in itself is good enough to keep the bonding going.  
 
What goes into building a team with larger-than-life cricketers like Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers?  

AB and Virat are integral to the team, the development of other players as well as making them feel at home. Both of them are on point on that. Besides, to break the ice, we don't just have team rooms, but have also created competitions within RCB itself, called RCB Clashathon. It's a strategy for team-bonding through various activities—everybody, from our content crew to players, are split into eight teams and participate in events like TT, golf, pool volleyball, shooting etc. It adds a new dimension to team building, culture and friendship. And Virat and AB, instead of being somewhere else, on their own, are always around--be it a team event or a breakfast or lunch and anything else. Young players get to have them around for multiple hours, and exchange ideas.   
 
Will the dynamics change as Kohli steps down from captaincy next year?      
Not at all. They all are professionals and will handle all these situations.
 
Where does the RCB administration draw a line in meddling with the cricketing leadership?
Simple answer—the management does not interfere in cricket. It is run by Mike Hesson. We have a governing structure where Mike is the director of operations and we have chats to understand the performance etc. But we don't get into any of his cricketing decision-making. And that's true even when a match is lost. This is a game, and we need to create the right environment for players to succeed. We will evaluate what went wrong, the challenges, the opportunities etc. post the tournament. During the tournament, we'll do nothing—that space is owned by cricket, and Mike will drive that.
 
RCB has never managed to win the IPL. What gaps are you looking to plug in order to finish with the trophy?

Our structural changes have impacted us positively for the last two years. We have reached the playoffs for two consecutive years now. In the playoffs, luck and the best team on that day win. Our objective is to reach the playoffs consistently. Once you do that, we will get the cup one day.
 
How is RCB looking to enhance its brand value through tie-ups and how will the latest venture with the Puma athleisure range help?

RCB's expansion will come vertically, not horizontally. We won't expand to unrelated spaces, like buying a team in, say, London, or getting into kabaddi. RCB is a lifestyle brand and we will get into spaces within its ambit—like, we launched the RCB Bar & Café in Bengaluru, and we will look at expanding that within India and globally. Second is the association with Puma. We believe merchandise business is going to be big in India as the sports market evolves, and nothing better than joining hands with Puma, another lifestyle brand. This partnership is a true intersection of cricket and lifestyle. 

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