National, September 15, 2020: Five wins all season – that’s what the Rajasthan Royals could manage in 2019. A prime factor was their inability to fire in unison despite individually delivering the goods. Of the six centuries scored last year, two came from Rajasthan – from Ajinkya Rahane and Sanju Samson – but on both occasions, they ended up on the losing side.
Three of those five wins came in the latter half after the Royals changed captains midway through the season. Skipper Rahane’s inconsistency with the bat was aggravated by poor tactical decisions which left the Royals desperately looking for a way out after five losses in six games. After the reigns were handed to Steve Smith for the final six games, their fortunes turned. Smith’s impact as captain on the side was telling, and it wasn’t a surprise when the management named him their full-time captain for the upcoming 2020 edition.
Rahane, who was the most-capped Royals player, was eventually traded to the Delhi Capitals for Mayank Markande and Rahul Tewatia in late 2019. The rationale behind the move being the abundance in opening options versus the need to strengthen their spin department. An imbalance though, is still prevalent given that the Royals have put all their eggs in the overseas basket, requiring them to fire desperately.
The squad boasts of their own fab four in Smith, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, with the disparity between them and the local talent being quite stark. The 17 Indian players in the set-up have a combined 100 international caps among them, of which Robin Uthappa alone accounts for 59, and 12 of them are uncapped.
Stokes’s participation this year is under a cloud of uncertainty, which could impair an already wobbly middle order. Much of their reliance for a good start will lay on Buttler at the top, who is coming off a strong English summer, and was valuable last season with three fifties in eight games. If Australia and England players have to serve mandatory quarantine, the Royals may have only the three overseas players in David Miller, Oshane Thomas and Andrew Tye at their disposal early on. Jaydev Unadkat, who was released and re-bought by the franchise, will lead the side in Smith’s absence.
Although, on paper, their top five are match-winners in their own right, it’ll come down to the squad firing collectively. And it’ll have to start early in the season.
What’s their best eleven and why?
Likely XI:Jos Buttler, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Sanju Samson, Steven Smith, Robin Uthappa, Ben Stokes, Riyan Parag, Shreyas Gopal, Jofra Archer, Jaydev Unadkat, Ankit Rajpoot/Varun Aaron/Kartik Tyagi
As much as the Royals are inundated with opening options, their lack in the bowling department is evident. An opener by trade, Jaiswal first made headlines last year when he smashed 203 off 154 balls in a Vijay Hazare Trophy match against Jharkhand, becoming the youngest male double centurion in List A cricket. From there, he has risen in stature showing more promise, emerging as the highest run-getter in the 2020 Under-19 World Cup in South Africa, scoring 400 runs from six matches in India’s run to the final, averaging 133.33. He’s touted to open the batting alongside Buttler, whose experience will be perfect foil for the youngster.
Uthappa’s experience could work wonders for a fragile middle order with Miller to follow if Stokes opts out, but it leaves the pace bowling significantly weakened. Pacer Kartik Tyagi, who had an exceptional U-19 World Cup himself with 11 wickets in 6 games, shining through owing to his ability to bowl some stinging yorkers, is expected to play a part.
Shreyas Gopal has been a very handy pick for RR in the auction in 2018, picking 31 wickets in 24 matches in the last two seasons, particularly acting as a wicket-taker in the middle overs. Gopal’s 21 wickets in the middle overs (7-15) is the joint-third most in the last two IPL seasons behind Tahir (30) and Rashid (25), which bodes well for them.
RR will really be hoping for Stokes to be available for the season, who has been in prime form the last year and a half. However, Stokes’s returns for RR have been meagre, much in contrast to his outing with Rising Pune Supergiant. Stokes’s form in last series he played against West Indies will give RR some hope of him carrying it forward into the IPL and delivering which he hasn’t in the two seasons so far for them.
Partly due to Stokes’ poor returns with the bat, RR has struggled in the last two seasons in the death overs. In 2018 they scored at 9.49 and in 2019 it was 9.29 – in the lowest among teams and well below what the teams scored in death overs. Miller, a possible backup for Stokes, has also fared badly in the last few seasons in IPL averaging 23 and striking at 121 in the last four seasons.
What works to their advantage? (Strengths)
The top-heavy line-up and opening options at their disposal. Apart from Jaiswal, they have the option of opening with not just Uthappa, but even the explosive Manan Vohra if need be. Buttler has has been the pillar of Royals’ batting strength at the top of the order. In the 14 innings he has opened for RR, he has scored 739 runs at 61.58 and a strike-rate of 159.61 with eight fifties. His form in the recently-concluded English summer is promising.
Also, unlike the last season, Smith will lead the side from the beginning, although his time in the middle against England in the T20Is wasn’t for much with scores of 18, 10 and 3. He was ruled out of the first two subsequent ODIs after copping a blow to the head in the nets, denying him of much-needed game-time.
What also works for RR is their top order being good players of spin, and in the UAE with slower wickets, their skill will come in handy. RR also have five games in Abu Dhabi, a wicket that is similar to their home venue in Jaipur which is on the slower side, that will help them approach games like they would’ve had the tournament been played in India.
What doesn’t work to their advantage?
The lack of bowling options in the death apart from Archer and Unadkat and a couple of Indian bowlers like Varun Aaron or Ankit Rajpoot, who will need to first adapt to the UAE pitches. Oshane Thomas and Aaron are known for their pace more and less for variations.
In 2019, RR was the worst bowling team in death overs conceding at 11.34. Unadkat (11.13), Stokes (10.22) and Rajpoot (10.23) all conceded at 10-plus per over in the last two seasons which means Archer will have to shoulder bulk of the responsibility. Another option is to bring in Andrew Tye, but he hasn’t played any professional cricket since last October after undergoing a shoulder surgery.
All their main spinners belong to the same kind – legspin (Gopal, Markande, Tewatia, Parag and Smith). Mahipal Lomror is left-arm finger spinner who also takes the ball away from right-handers, making RR a bad match-up against teams with left-heavy top six. They have traded K Gowtham which leaves them bereft of quality offspin options with only the lesser-known entities like Shashank Singh and Anirudha Joshi available.
Bowlers apart, RR lack a genuine all-rounder too, other than Stokes according to the reports published in cricbuzz.com.
Is there an opportunity?
Sanju Samson needs to shed off the tag of inconsistency, and although teenager Riyan Parag broke through last season and instilled trust, he needs to establish himself in the middle order. It’s rather easy for them to get shadowed by the superstars studded in the top five, but as has happened in the past, if they shine, it could be a stepping stone for them into the Indian side sooner than expected.
The Royals’ adopted ‘moneyball’ strategy has been a distinctive feature of the franchise when juxtaposed with the other competing teams. It fetched them results in the maiden season where they were crowned champions, but they’re yet to reach an IPL final since. Having made a slew of changes this year, bringing in 11 new players, the challenge would be getting a working team combination from the early stages. Especially their in-depth stock of wrist-spinners, who could have an important role to play, especially the variations of Gopal. Although a tough task, if they get their combination right from the onset, it’ll hold them in good stead.