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Rajasthan Royals: Suspense, Surprise, Surrender?

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Shane_Watson_IPL_Rajasthan_RoyalsFor the Rajasthan Royals, the 2015 IPL season began in suspense. Thanks to an eternally ongoing investigation in the spot fixing case, their – and Chennai Super Kings’ – participation was under the cloud. Since the ‘overlord’ of Indian cricket got away with it on technicalities – for the time being at least – the Royals were afforded this chance to play as well, the only fallout being that they parted ways with one of their owners who was also involved in this mess.

Once this was over in the second week of April, the IPL season took off and, as always, Chennai Super Kings hit the ground running and slotted calmly at number two in the points table. Then came the surprise: CSK’s eight-wicket loss to the Rajasthan Royals, who shot up to the top of the table with four victories on the bounce.

 

Putting the off-field controversies aside for a moment, there is a certain romanticism about the Royals. From day one of this league, back in 2008, they have brought youngsters to the fore. Cynics will argue that this is not unique: it is by design given how the league’s rules have been drawn up. However, whatever the degree of success of the Royals, it has been more dependent on these youngsters thrust into the limelight than perhaps any other team in the fray.

It is most reflected in their strategy during the off-season; in particular, during the annual auctions. Shane Warne was their first – and last – megastar. Shane Watson was acquired in the original auctions and has stayed on forever. Rahul Dravid, it ought to be remembered, was acquired in the second fresh auctions for a bargain price. As a rule, they do not run after crowd pullers or players who need to be paid big bucks for six weeks of inconsistent performances. They go after those who can do the job, fit missing pieces in their jigsaw puzzles year after year, and back their unknown names to shine.

Ravindra Jadeja made it to the international spotlight. A certain Kamran Khan did not. Maybe Sanju Samson, Karun Nair and Deepak Hooda will make it. Pravin Tambe will not. It is not about how many cricketers coming out of their stable will go on to play for India. It is, rather, about pinching pennies, counting cards at the table, and winning by attrition in a game where cash plays a big role. You can insert the age-old ‘Moneyball’ reference here.

This strategy is a bit of mixed bag though, and it reflects in the Royals’ record over the years. After shocking everyone with their triumph in the inaugural season, they ran out of steam, finishing 6th twice (2009 & 2011) and 7th another two times (2010 & 2012). They finished a respectable 3rd in 2013 but dipped to 5th last season. Strangely enough, their current situation mirrors last season’s results.

The Royals were on a fine run whilst Mumbai Indians made a hellish start losing their first five games. The latter recovered, while the former stuttered from time to time, more prominently losing their last three matches to miss out on the fourth knock-outs’ spot to Mumbai on run-rate. Now, look back at how this season has flown past. An initial run of wins, then a couple of losses, some rain, some more rain, a couple more losses, and the Royals are in a state of free-fall. Their task is made tougher since both Sunrisers Hyderabad and Royal Challengers Bangalore are making a mad dash for the finish line.

The question to ask here pertains to the key performance differentiators. It cannot be coincidence that the Royals’ losing streak began as Watson took back the captaincy reins from Steve Smith. This is not to blame the all-rounder singularly, for he is a fantastic player in his own right, especially in this shorter format. But lately anything Smith has touched turns to gold; just ask Cricket Australia and the Indian bowlers in that order. Maybe, just maybe, the Royals haven’t properly harnessed Smith’s superb luck/form/touch – whatever you want to call it.

The other big point is in the form of Samson and Nair. Last season, the two youngsters scored 339 and 330 runs respectively in 24 innings between them, inclusive of five fifties. Across 17 innings between them this season, they have scored 165 and 143 runs respectively, inclusive of two fifties. Poor form, rain, mix-up of batting order as warranted sometimes by this format, etc. are some reasons that can be attributed to this dip.

At the same time, Stuart Binny’s role has reduced with the coming of Chris Morris and Tim Southee, and Rajat Bhatia has been totally sidelined. You can see how overseas players are preferred in any combination, but it hasn’t worked of late with regards to turning around their form.

In summation, all these factors have contributed to the current predicament of the Royals’ team management. As they look at the points table, they will see two matches remaining in this final week – against Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders. These are the two best teams in the fray this season, closely matched, and both in the running for the top two spots in the table. The Royals are caught between a rock and a hard place.

To guarantee safety, the Royals would have to win both matches, but that is easier said than done. Ideally they would like to win one of them and then bet on things going their way, and just about scrape through.

Anything less, and they will have surrendered their rollicking start to this IPL season.



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