‘Maintain a 100% record in the first week, but risk losing each of your matches in the second and the third; Play your first two matches in Sharjah and become kings, but have an ephemeral reign; Win matches with the wrong combination, but lose them with the right one(s)’.
Had the Devil offered Rajasthan Royals a deal prior to the start of the tournament, it would have looked and sounded something like the statement above. Judging by how Rajasthan’s season has panned out so far, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Steve Smith, Andrew McDonald & Co. in fact put pen to paper to a similar arrangement. The team aside, select few individuals might have struck their own deals, too.
For instance, Sanju Samson, like he’s done season after season, might have signed a “Score 80% of the total season’s runs in the first two games to have people advocating for you for an India spot” deal and Steve Smith might have also agreed to a “Score two match-winning fifties in the first two games at the cost of looking like an absolute idiot in the next three” arrangement. For after six matchdays, one does get a feel that Rajasthan Royals used up every ounce of luck allocated to them this season in just the first two games.
As a Rajasthan Royals fan, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that what you’re witnessing this season is a carbon copy of the previous season - midway into the campaign, the side is reeling at the bottom of the table, there is a captain who is unsure as to how to play the cards he has at his disposal and there is the looming feeling that a play-off position is drifting farther and farther away with every passing game.
But was Friday’s defeat versus the Capitals a sign that they are close as ever to cracking their strongest XI?
Despite slumping to a scathing defeat in a ground where they were once invincible, the Delhi Capitals encounter should be encouraging for the Royals and their fans, for the side, in the game, got their selection and planning right and only fell short when it came to execution.
One abysmal over from Andrew Tye and yet another hideous batting performance - fueled by young Yashasvi Jaiswal’s perennial struggle in the middle - toppled their plans and ensured that their losing streak continued, but the combination Rajasthan assembled on Friday, which might require a couple of personnel changes in the future, was their most balanced yet, and will be their best bet to launch a late charge to qualify for the playoffs.
What was evident from the XI Rajasthan put out on Friday was that they are a team learning from their mistakes and experiments and are, unlike a team like Kings XI, making the right tweaks. Across their six games this season, Rajasthan have used 17 players - which is pretty high and suggests lack of clarity - but the changes and experiments have been forward-thinking and positive.
For instance, Parag, Uthappa and Unadkat were identified ahead of the season as their go-to Indian players, and were hence given a long rope in the side (4 games), but were soon dispatched once it became evident that they really do not fit the bill. Similarly, the top-order has been tampered with, almost game after game, but the move has been a product of the open-mindedness to strike the right balance for the side.
“Like most teams in this tournament, we probably haven’t settled on our final XI, we’re still learning about our players. There have been 12 new players added to the side, so every game we’re learning about our players, but what’s key is to make really good decisions moving forward, so we’ll assess and make changes we feel are needed,” said coach Andrew McDonald post the RCB game, and in the two matches Rajasthan have played since, positive changes have been enforced.
Like McDonald had pointed out, it is the understanding of individuals, their strengths and weaknesses, that has paved the way for Rajasthan to make the right changes. The team misfiring from top to bottom at some point across the first five games meant that the management had the opportunity to evaluate the mettle of those who had a run in the side and it wasn’t a surprise that verus Delhi, the men who were standing tall were either the ones who’d already proved their doughtiness - the Tewatias and Lomrors and Tyagis - or the ones who were eager to prove their quality and resolve - the Jaiswals and the Aarons.
The learnings will, of course, never end. The management would certainly have learnt a lot from the Delhi game, too, and something they might have picked up from that encounter could very well be that Jaiswal might not be ready for the rigours of T20 cricket - yet. Whilst there was nothing wrong about his technique, the youngster showed little in his 36-ball stay in the middle to suggest that the side would reap immediate rewards for investing in him. As a result, bringing Manan Vohra, an aggressive veteran opener with ample IPL experience, into the side might be a move McDonald might be lining up.
What will encourage Smith & Co. ahead of their clash versus Sunrisers on Sunday is that after six matches of chopping and changing, they are almost there and will, very soon, have at their disposal what they think might be the final piece in their IPL 2020 puzzle - Ben Stokes. Having finished his quarantine on Friday (October 10), Stokes will officially be available for selection, and what works in RR’s favour is that he could slot straight into the XI in place of Andrew Tye without upsetting the balance of the side. In fact, one presumes that the XI Rajasthan fielded versus Delhi in their last game with the addition of Stokes will be the strongest team they could possibly put out.
But all that and more will count for little should they fail to turn things around. The gap between the Top 5 and the bottom 3 is widening and Sunday might just be Rajasthan’s last chance to board the play-off train. Before they could start thinking about boarding the train, though, they will have to first put a premature end to the deal they struck with the devil.