Sport and overreaction go hand-in-hand. Cricket is no exception, but fans of the IPL love making a mountain out of a molehill.
Just after one matchday for each side, Pat Cummins was branded the worst IPL signing of all time, Devudtt Padikkal was labelled the next Yuvraj Singh and Chennai Super Kings’ decision to stick with the oldies was seen as a masterstroke. Long story short, all theories were proven wrong after a couple of more matchdays, after which the same fans, surprisingly, started becoming a bit more rational and pragmatic.
Among the beneficiaries of ‘Week one overreaction’ were Rajasthan Royals. A club termed the ‘worst team in the league’ post the auction, and a franchise seen relevant only because of their desire to purchase Jaydev Unadkat for hefty sums year after year in the auction, the Royals - wooden spoon favorites prior to the season - scored two giant victories in each of their first two games. And so, the overreaction began. “The Royals have a formidable team,” observed a few experts after their Punjab win; the same experts who’d pipped them to finish 8th not so long ago. “This could be the Royals’ year” claimed Shane Warne, while “Sanju Samson is the best young batsman in the world” echoed a million voices.
On Thursday at the Dubai International Stadium, reality hit the Rajasthan team like a fast-moving truck, and along with them their fans too. With the luxury of Sharjah stripped away from them, the Royals looked ordinary, like a shooter without the rifle, and succumbed to a 37-run defeat in what could be termed as the most ‘braindead’ batting performance of the season. Their skipper Steve Smith admitted post-match that some batsmen ‘missed’ Sharjah, but one wonders if there was more to Rajasthan’s batting performance than just failure to acclimatize to conditions.
For they are a team who, like Sunrisers Hyderabad, are unreasonably top-heavy and are exorbitantly and unhealthily reliant on their three best batsmen, Jos Buttler, Steve Smith and Sanju Samson. The Royals are set-up in a way that they can only succeed in the case of two scenarios coming to fruition: the first, in the case of one or more than one of their top three almost batting through the entire innings and two, one or more than one of their middle-order batsmen overperforming inconceivably.
Across their first two wins of the season, aside from the fact that they were playing in a small ground like Sharjah, both the aforementioned scenarios came true. Versus Chennai, Smith and Samson scored 69.75% of all the runs that came from the bat while against Punjab, apart from the duo scoring 59% of the team’s total runs, the team had Rahul Tewatia outrageously overperform, which saw them nudge towards victory. The game against Kolkata, in stark contrast, which saw their top three account for a total of 32 runs, was closer to the worst-case scenario, as a result of which they, unsurprisingly, plummeted to a humiliating defeat.
The composition of the XI they fielded against KKR - strong top-order, non-existent middle-order and two overseas pacer - is such that, should they opt for a similar structure in the forthcoming games, it might yield them binary results: an embarrassing defeat like yesterday, or thrilling and dominant victories like against CSK and KXIP. Historical evidence in the IPL suggests that teams with overwhelming disparity in quality between two facets - in Rajasthan’s case, their top-order and the rest of the batting - have seldom succeeded, and so it will only be wise to assume that RR will lose more than they will win, thanks to the law of averages bound to catch-up with their top three - as it did, on Wednesday.
But, unlike SRH, Rajasthan have strength in depth, and are a naturally more balanced side, and thus can fix their imbalance with one major change. It is as major as it can get, though, for it will need them to bat Jos Buttler down the order.
The reason behind the same is simple: by separating Buttler from Smith and Samson, and pushing him down the order, RR will organically spread their strength across the line-up and will, in turn, dilute the top-heaviness and make it more balanced and flexible. The common narrative used to quash this very argument is not to fix something that is not broken, which, in this case, is Buttler the opener. Since mid-2018, Buttler, with an average close to 50 and SR over 150, has, arguably, been the best opener in the entire IPL and, therefore, it would make all the sense in the world for a team like Rajasthan to give their best batsman more balls to face by opening with him.
However, there is more to it than what meets the eye. The RR side of 2020 is not like every other side Buttler has been a part of. While at Mumbai in 2017 - where he also opened - he had the Pollard and Pandyas down the order, and at Rajasthan a couple of seasons ago he had Samson, Stokes and Binny at 4, 5, 6 and in England he has the Morgans and Alis to build on his exploits, that simply is not the case with the current RR side. The absence of Stokes, coupled with a top three of Smith, Buttler and Samson, means that RR have Uthappa, Tewatia and Parag as their middle-order; basically, one veteran past his best, one bits-and-pieces all-rounder who is not a specialist batsman and one unproven youngster, all three of whom are unreliable, as their trusted core.
As was evident from the KKR game, that simply won’t suffice and won’t be feasible in the long-run. Even in the case of the top-order setting a platform for the side, RR, right now, have a middle-order incapable of capitalizing on it, as we learnt from the CSK game where, before Ngidi and Archer did what they did, the middle-order blew the platform set by Smith and Samson.
Moving to Buttler to No.4, or perhaps even No.5, depending on the match situation, would, in more than one way, be the perfect fix to it. One, he is someone who is naturally accustomed to the role of finisher - he has been donning the role since his T20 debut in 2009 and is still doing it for England in ODIs - and two, it would keep the dynamic of the top three intact without disrupting it. Aside from the fact that Butler's six-hitting ability at the death is superior to every other batsman in the RR side, it would also allow Smith, who seems to have found a new gear in T20s as an opener, and Samson, who seems to have discovered his safe-space at No.3, to continue to glide along in the positions they’ve excelled. As Rajasthan learnt the hard way last season, handing Smith the No.4 role - where he boasted an SR of 116 - is a ploy detrimental to the side.
To compliment Buttler moving to the middle-order, though, Rajasthan would have to make a few other changes to the side which, one imagines, will subsequently improve both the team and the balance. Young Yashasvi Jaiswal or the hard-hitting Manan Vohra would need to partner Smith at the top of the order - at the expense of Uthappa, who clearly is a liability in the middle-order - and David Miller, at least until Stokes returns, would have to join Buttler down the order. Despite his valiant efforts with both bat and ball thus far this season, given RR already have one world-class overseas pacer in Jofra Archer, Tom Curran is a luxury which the side cannot currently afford. Given there is plenty of rich Indian talent in the pace department, a more logical and viable option would be to play one of Varun Aaron or Karthik Tyagi as the third seamer.
The ball is in Rajasthan’s court. Contrary to the outrage and overreaction post the auction, 2020 might be the best opportunity for them to reach the play-offs in years. That they will need to overperform - particularly their Indian contingent - goes unsaid, but at their disposal is a squad, and lying in front of them is a path which, if utilized to good effect, might yield them success. For a supposed underdog like the Royals, tactical nous will be key to success, and so demoting Buttler to No.4 might, after all, not be a bad start in their quest to outsmart sides en route to glory.