Kohli's training and Karthik's legacy: How Mahipal Lomror became RCB's finisher-apparent

Mahipal Lomror embracing Dinesh Karthik after the duo
Mahipal Lomror embracing Dinesh Karthik after the duo's last-over chase against Punjab Kings.

In the obscure KL Saini Ground tucked in a corner of Jaipur, there's a Vijay Hazare Trophy 2023 match going on between heavyweights Maharashtra and Vidarbha.

The morning is cut from a typical Rajasthan November day. The grass is cold; the sun feels good. Three kids from the adjacent academy have finished their training early to come to sit outside the fence. They are not allowed near the ropes despite having spent more time there than some of the established stars in action.

Among those playing are Karun Nair, Umesh Yadav, and Kedar Jadhav. And some excellent uncapped talents like Darshan Nalkande and Harsh Dubey putting on a show. But these 10-something-year-old spectators don't seem bothered at all.

In between a couple of prank calls and a discussion about invitations to an academy friend's sister's wedding, the youngest of them attempts a flex.

"I practiced with Mahipal Lomror recently," he says.
"Oh, wow, how come?", the reply jumps out from his left.
"He comes to the other academy to practice sometimes. Coach sir asks me to bowl to him in the nets. I am an off-spinner na. He likes facing me too," he adds.

In this part of the country, Lomror, the Rajasthan captain and Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) all-rounder, is more of a hero than some record-breakers at the international level. But only if the 24-year-old believed it.

"What role model can I be?," Lomror says in a freewheeling chat on phone with Sportskeeda, soon after IPL 2024. "But still, I come from a place in Rajasthan where there was nothing - Nagaur. I started my cricket journey with two cement wickets. And my journey has been like that, that maybe people are getting inspired by it, or they get the belief that if a guy from a village can come and do something [they can too]."

Humble beginnings aren't usually relatable to all of the cricketing audience. Stats are, though. In IPL 2024, Lomror scored just 125 runs but his strike rate was at his IPL-best (minimum 10 runs) of 183.82. Among those who played at least 10 innings and scored 100 runs in the death overs, Lomror's strike rate of 194.34 was only behind Tristan Stubbs, MS Dhoni, and RCB teammate Dinesh Karthik.

And this was just his first season as a finisher. The new RCB leadership of Mo Bobat and Andy Flower didn't want him to be a spin-hitting floater anymore. Instead, he was told he'll bat at number six or seven with just one job -- hit as soon as he's ready -- just a few days before RCB's first game of the season.

Lomror admits the difficulty that comes with the job, especially concerning there is no time to settle or read the pitch at all more often than not. But in the IPL, with so many good players breathing down your neck, you can't see a difficulty as difficult.

"I had a simple formula: I knew that there would be a lot of failures in this position, there could be a lot of small innings, or maybe no chance to bat at all, but I was just telling myself that I would be at peace at the end of the day and whatever I will be doing, I will be following my process," he says. "I will be doing the best thing for the team there. And whatever I felt that the team needed at that time, I didn't care about anything else, I was only concerned about the execution. If I could execute, it was fine. If not, it was fine. There was no issue of getting it done 10 times out of 10."

In the end, he got to play exactly 10 times, mostly as an Impact Player, and on five of those, his finishing impact came through well for RCB.

It started with a game-changing 17* (8) against the Punjab Kings (PBKS) at Chinnaswamy, where he hit two boundaries and a six against Sam Curran and Arshdeep Singh in his first five balls to upend the difficult chase. On the other five occasions when it didn't come off, he didn't use up more than *three* deliveries.

Roles don't get more selfless than that in the sport. It doesn't reflect in your total runs, you are never even close to the Orange Cap, and the batting average -- which most experts still consider an important T20 metric -- is always low.

"I never thought that I would change my process after one game or get selfish by taking some time to hurt the team," Lomror argues. "I was always prepared for that. I thought, ok, it's difficult, but it's a good opportunity to do something for the team. And what if this role gives me a lot more success?"

The success was in the finer details. Until 2024, Lomror struck at 136.18 against spin and 126 against pace, giving him the image of a spin basher, who needed to be shielded from the pacers. This year, the spin-bashing went to another level with a strike rate of 228 but pace was also dispatched at a brilliant 168.

Lomror says he never boxed himself into a specific role but knew that he had all the talent to hit pacers equally well and be flexible for the team's needs.

"I guess that image was formed because my role in the franchises before RCB or in this franchise was that I was facing mostly spinners," he says. "... People didn't know that I could be successful against pace as well... The oppositions also planned it thinking, 'He has been sent for hitting the spinners', so they put in a pace bowler whenever I went to bat. Then people thought that's maybe because he's weak against pace... And it could have also been because my role was like that, so I was also working extra against spin."

When he started doing well, he didn't spare left-arm pacers (strike-rate doubling to 163.2 in 2024 compared to 89.7 earlier) or right-arm ones (171 in 2024 from 135).


Learning from the best

There were two common factors in most of Lomror's best knocks. One: sluggish, tacky tracks. He attributes it to the "habit" of playing most of his childhood in similar conditions in Rajasthan, as well as being afforded some time to take a couple of balls after RCB's top-loaded cream's early dismissals in such games.

"After a certain number of balls, the body takes over and it starts running instinctively and you go to a different zone because you know that everything is under your control because you've been playing in such wickets since childhood, he says. "The body has an idea, the mind has an idea, how to hit a bowler, how to manipulate the game."

Usually being in that zone is excellent. But it also makes cricketers vulnerable to getting carried away with emotions. That's why partnerships are so important and that's why you hear even the best talk about the importance of chatting with their batting partner. That was the second common factor for Lomror: Karthik's aura.

When Lomror went out against PBKS, his excitement showed in his reactions after every shot. The Chinnaswamy was pumping and the youngster wanted to show them what he could do and maybe fix his place in the playing 11. But Karthik calmed him down and reminded him to focus on the situation and its demands.

"He said, 'Don't think about what six or four you hit, don't think about anything'. The next ball should be the focus," Lomror recalls.
"He asked me to think about the situation and from the opposition's perespective what would they have wanted in this situation -- 'If you had given one run to the batter, would you have been happy? ... You don't have to think about anything too ahead in the future, about where can you hit a winning six, crowd pressure, team expectations, self-expectations, forget everything, all those things will take care of themselves if you stay calm and execute your processes according to your preparations.'"

RCB's final-over win by four wickets took Chinnaswamy over the moon. It felt like the start of an excellent season where they'd reach the playoffs easily thanks to the tactics and usage of fringe players. However, even as the Lomror-Karthik partnership blossomed, the match turned out to be the storm before a big lull.


Living a turnaround for the ages

RCB lost the next six matches on the trot. Some close, some convincingly. Some after a ton of changes, some with similar 11s. Glenn Maxwell sacrificed himself, Kohli accumulated runs but nothing seemed to work. The team looked outdated in a crazy new era of IPL and held the franchise's longest losing streak in history.

From the outside, the fourth loss, a seven-wicket defeat to the Mumbai Indians (who ultimately finished last) chasing 197 in less than 16 overs felt like a stab straight into the heart. There were discussions about captaincy changes, or another management overhaul, and a feeling of 'enough' was palpable among the fans.

Although multiple accounts have since said the atmosphere inside the dressing room was always optimistic, that doesn't do in the IPL. So the team decided to arrange a sitting -- separated into groups of two, batting and bowling. Lomror, with his all-rounder tag gone due to the Impact Player circus, sat with the batters.

"In the meeting, after a lot of discussion we spoke the tagline of RCB -- Play Bold," he recounts. "We said that from now on, whatever we were doing, we would do it with 100% conviction, 100% for our team, and then we'd see what the result is. But we won't back down from any situation. If we are under pressure, we will try to attack more so that we can come back in the game. We said, 'The cricket we are playing now is not good for anyone. It's not good for the team either."

There was no specific feedback, no finger-pointing. It was an honest review where the team admitted that they were too "defensive". A new theme was decided upon, where both batters were supposed to communicate and figure out which one of them would go on a relentless attack, with at least one doing so being necessary.

Narrow losses against eventual finalists SunRisers Hyderabad (SRH) and Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), both in massive run-chases, didn't deter them because this counter-attack was to be applied to not just each game, but IPL 2024 as a whole.

"We thought whatever happened, at the end of the day, we won't have any regrets. We should feel that we have played a great brand of cricket and it was fun. The senior players and coaches motivated everyone to play that particular brand of cricket. And it was like, if you do this for the team, the team will back you 100%," Lomror says.
"In team sports, when you're not doing well, it feels like a lot of things are not right. You hear a lot of talks from coaches, players, or whoever. But to be very honest, I didn't feel that way at all this time. We all used to talk about the solution, that, yes, this situation is going on, but what is the solution? You can talk negatively and think selfishly. It's very easy to do that. But all the players, staff, and management, all did this thing very well and they never let anyone go into a negative zone. Whenever we were losing, we were always trying to find a solution."

Lomror says the team environment was such that even out-of-form and bench players' suggestions and tips for the team were given equal value to seniors.

All this poured into the momentum when RCB won one against SRH (the second game, soon after the KKR clash) and then didn't lose again in the group stage. From creating history with defeat, RCB smashed the best sides and found luck in other results to curate one of the most amazing surges into the Playoffs.


Memes!

Living this turnaround, Lomror got to observe a master at work. He says in the team's discussion, that the lack of bite against spinners in the powerplay and the sluggish middle-overs came out as a big issue.

He, too, admitted that although Kohli was scoring runs, he was doing it on one leg, bogged down by the onus of running a struggling batting order. So, now, under mission 'Play Bold' the former India captain took the initiative to attack the spinners early. As a result, his accumulation saw a new cream of strike rate to it, his slog-sweeps became the talk of the town and RCB's run-scoring was unleashed.

"When we were watching him behind the scenes, he worked a lot on his slog sweep and his power hitting," Lomror says. "He prepared himself separately. Before the match, whenever we discussed the bowlers, he used to share his plans with everyone. He has played against almost all the bowlers. He was helping out everyone. And when we would watch in the evening, he would try to replicate the same things [in the match]. He was executing it on a different level."

And Lomror observed it a bit closer than most others. Remember the video from the RCB Unbox event where Kohli tried a joke with some players and it didn't land, so he moved towards Lomror and said it again and both shared a raucous laugh?

"The videos you must have seen would be most probably us discussing a meme," Lomror says. "Sometimes I share one with him, sometimes he does too. Then when we are sitting in the dressing room, we pull someone's leg or something like that. As a player, I always have that respect for him in my heart. Even today, I feel a slight fear and hesitation about going and asking him something. But he has chilled out the dressing room atmosphere so much that you think, 'The worst bhaiya would do is refuse, I'll go and ask what it is'."

Naturally, Kohli was the first person Lomror reached out to when he was given the finishing role.

"I went to him to ask what should be the mindset or what should I think. So, he said the same thing that, 'Yes, there will be failures, but the day you get the opportunity, when it's your day, you will finish the game and that will give you a lot of confidence. So, just keep working on your execution.' ... And when there was a time in between when I had 3-4 small innings, I was feeling a little low. So, he came and I was struggling in the nets a little. He gave me throw-downs. We discussed what we could do, what was going wrong, what he thought could be done better in my game, what I could do better, or if I could work on a skill."

Lomror did recover from the bad phase and his season ended with a brilliant 32 (17) against Rajasthan Royals in the Eliminator, the third-highest score for RCB in the game and the one with the best strike rate (minimum five balls). However, it wasn't enough as the momentum wavered and RR chased down 173 in 19 overs.


Looking ahead

You have just read through an emotional roller-coaster of an IPL season from one player's perspective. Multiply that by 40 other stories, of players, staff, the management and everyone involved with the functioning of the team.

All those emotions came rushing through when it wasn't just the loss to RR in the Eliminator that the team had to deal with, but also Karthik's retirement.

"We were very emotional that day. DK bhai was also very emotional. When you have been doing something for 25-30 years and suddenly one day someone says, 'It's done, now, no more cricket'... but at the end of the day we were happy for him and what he achieved in life, the miracles he did for RCB and India, the innings he played. We were remembering all of that. That day, the whole atmosphere was like that in the dressing room and a lot of people were emotional."

Lomror remembers seeing Karthik book practice facilities in every city he traveled to, taking his team of bowlers with him, to ready his plans for every match.

"When I started playing, he was already playing for the Indian team. I have always been a big fan of his never-give-up attitude. No matter what happened, whatever the situation, he made his place in the T20 World Cup team. His comeback, the things he achieved in life... I think in these 2-3 years I have been with him at RCB, I understood how he became such a big player. He takes his batting and entire set-up very seriously and he doesn't miss a single session... seeing all that, you think that he hasn't achieved so much just like that."

The youngster perhaps doesn't realize it yet but how he speaks about Karthik and the lessons he learned from him suggests that somewhere, somehow, the veteran wicketkeeper-batter was preparing him for taking the finishing responsibilities after him. Ask him where he goes from here, and you'll find a compass aimed at Karthik.

"I need to be more consistent," Lomror says. "I want to be able to perform more consistently and I want to have more knocks that define my role. I want to finish more games in the future. I got a new role as a finisher and I was working with DK, learned how to stay calm and focused on execution. When he was explaining things to me, I understood more. I had read and heard about the same stuff from some coaches before as well but I was feeling those things there and could understand it better. Because of that, I was calm and I was able to execute my plans. I can say this from experience now that whenever I was calm, good things happened to me."

It would be hard to put it past Karthik to use his final year in the IPL to prepare an heir for his all-important role in a team he so dearly loved.

If Lomror treks a similar path, starting at just 24, with a lot more opportunities thanks to the IPL's growth, he might end his career as a bigger role model than Karthik was to him. And on that day, when someone tells him that a kid in Rajasthan speaks fondly about practicing with him, he might not be shy, but battle-hardened and ready to pass on the baton.


Mahipal Lomror is exclusively represented by FairPlay Sports. With more than 80 athletes on their roster, FairPlay Sports is India's largest sports talent marketing agency.

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Edited by Ankush Das
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