How can someone boast a team full of champions and yet be an underdog? How can a team play like title favourites one day and then sure-shot wooden-spoon candidates the next? How can a side be so smart yet so stupid?
We’re not done, yet. How can a team glue a fan to the Television one moment and make them switch it off and break the remote the very next? How can a group of cricketers who, through their sheer brilliance and resilience, make you cheer your heart out for them one over, turn into a laughing stock six balls later? Welcome to the Rajasthan Royals paradox. Had we known the answer for all these questions, the preview below would, undoubtedly, have been way less convoluted.
What was the story last year?
To summarize The Royals’ IPL 2020 season, we’re afraid you’d have to go back and re-read the intro once again. They started off like champions, transitioned into dark horses and took the underdogs label mid-way through the tournament before turning into absolute laughing stocks by the time the death overs of their final group game beckoned. From having a realistic chance of making the Top 4 half-way into their final group game, Rajasthan Royals, somehow, ended up finishing bottom of the table, below even the worst team of the entire season, Chennai Super Kings.
Where exactly do they stand this season?
Inserting the “please re-read the intro” phrase again will be rude, so we’ll try to summarize their 2020 story succinctly. It was a tale of three chapters: Sanju (Sharjah), Tewatia and Stokes. Each chapter was fire for a couple of pages but became unreadable as it went on. The chapters had portions that were good enough for a normal person to boast about them on Twitter, but, ultimately, the book just turned out to be a cocktail of bad grammar, poor storytelling and unremarkable character arcs. The good portions turned out to be misfits that existed to deceive the readers.
Powerplay | As brittle as Mo Salah inside the 6-yard box
If you could pin-point one element as the solitary reason behind RR’s downfall in IPL 2020, it would undoubtedly be their atrocious batting in the powerplay. Pace wise, they fared okay - only three teams bettered their SR of 123.21 in the first six. However, RR ludicrously lost an average of 2.07 wkts per game in the first six, by far the worst tally in the league. Far too often, they lost all their big guns inside the powerplay - four times last season they lost 3 or more wickets inside the field restrictions - thereby handing the game to their opponents on a platter moments after the commencement of their innings. At times, watching RR bat in the powerplay did feel like catching a glimpse of a horror film; you never could predict when the next jump-scare would come.
Is solidity assured this time around?
Not really. To date, it remains a mystery as to who the openers for RR this season will be, though Eoin Morgan claims that it’ll be Stokes and Buttler. Last season, they astonishingly used five different opening combinations and, prior to the auction, they let go one half of their most successful combo, Stokes-Uthappa. Between them, Smith, Samson, Buttler and Stokes were dismissed 22 times inside the first six, and though they’ve let Smith go (he was dismissed 7 times and averaged just 15.7 in the powerplay), Buttler and Samson still averaged below 25 in the first six overs last season, while Stokes was sent back to the pavilion inside the powerplay in 5 of his 8 innings. Regardless of who opens, conserving wickets should be high on RR’s agenda this season.
Their latest recruit, Liam Livingstone, might be a decent shout up top. He not only has struck at 134.7 in his last 35 T20s, his average of 38.1 in the first six is also superior to every other RR batter. This number, in fact, increases to 136.0 and 42.8 respectively in 12 T20s in 2021. That said, RR’s team composition might make it difficult for them to accommodate the Englishman.
Middle-overs | Surprisingly……. Good?
RR in the middle overs of IPL 2020 did quite a commendable job for a side that often found itself 2 or 3 down early - only one side bettered this average middle-overs tally of 60.85 (SR 126.79) and they were only one of four teams to hit more than six boundaries per match in the phase, on average. But losing wickets turned out to be their Achilles Heel in this phase too. On average, RR lost 1.92 wkts per game last season in the middle overs; only KKR (2.64) lost more. This did not hinder how they batted in the middle-overs, per se, but the loss of wickets had a trickle-down effect; they suffered at the death due to the same.
How can they improve on these numbers?
Sanju Samson (Avg 43.0 and SR 168.6), Steve Smith (Avg 55.00 and SR 126.4) and Jos Buttler (Avg 52.0 and SR 143.1) were the three men who carried Rajasthan in the middle-overs last season, and with Smith gone, this time around, the responsibility of batting long and batting deep will once again fall on the shoulders of two of Samson, Buttler and Stokes. And there’s a reason for this. Rajasthan’s middle-order, which comprises young Indian batsmen, is brittle and easy to tie down. In IPL 2020, all of Shivam Dube (Avg 27.0 and SR 77.1; 27 off 35 balls), Riyan Parag (Avg 11.0 and SR 68.8; 22 off 32 balls), Mahipal Lomror (Avg 15.5 and SR 103.3; 31 off 30 balls) and Rahul Tewatia (Avg 57 and SR 91.9; 57 off 62 balls) had one gear in the middle-overs and were far from dynamic. RR, for the vast majority of last season, committed the heinous crime of putting all their big guns in the top order, but this season, one would think they will have no option but to play Buttler at No.5, like they did towards the business end of last season.
Death Overs | Don’t you dare dump all burden on Lord Tewatia once again
Accumulated loss of wickets both in the powerplay and the middle meant that RR, on multiple instances, batted at the death as a mere formality, yet a combination of freak performances and a few freak chases bolstered their numbers to the extent that they ended up being amongst the elite. Only two teams had a better SR in the final five overs than RR’s 161.74, and only Mumbai Indians hit more sixes per game than their 3. Yet this was largely due to two factors: Sharjah, and Rahul Tewatia over-performing. RR hit an astonishing 40.47% of all sixes at death (17/42) in the mini-stadium that is Sharjah, while their 11 games outside Sharjah just accumulated just 25 sixes (avg 2.27 per game). Tewatia, who was RR’s MVP in IPL 2020, hit 38.09% (16/42) of all their sixes in the final five overs, 50% of which came in Sharjah (8/16). RR losing a cluster of wickets in the powerplay and the middle meant that the burden of boundary-hitting fell on Tewatia, who, to everyone’s surprise, rose up to the occasion.
Will the story be different this time around?
Unless Tewatia magically sustains his form from IPL 2020, they will, unlike last season, not get away with dumping all responsibility on one man. Using one of Livingstone or Miller - both have struck at over 170 in T20s since the start of 2020 - will add more teeth and firepower, but that might not be feasible due to the team’s make-up. Dube, in his IPL career, strikes at 148.0 at the death, but those are numbers far from daunting. Chris Morris in his IPL career strikes at 166.8 in the last five overs, but he cannot be relied upon to do a job for the side. Which leaves RR with no option but to go the India way: have one of their ‘Big 3’ bat deep and go bonkers at the death. In their IPL career, Samson, Buttler and Stokes have combinedly struck an astonishing 1,120 runs in the final five overs of the innings at a SR of 170.7.
RR, last season, had an extra pillar in the form of Steve Smith - that he failed is a different issue altogether - but this season, it is evident that the trio of Samson, Buttler and Stokes will have to do not just a bulk of the run-scoring, but also hitting in order for them to stay competitive. The balance of the batting line-up is inherently flawed, and unless one of their young Indian stars has a stupendous season, the Royals will need one magic performance after another from their big guns to have a shot at the title - particularly given the fact that they play 10 off their 14 matches at the Wankhede, Eden Gardens and Chinnaswamy, three venues regarded as graveyard for bowlers.
Jofra Archer. That is all.
Powerplay | Jofra Archer. That is all.
In case you’re wondering, there is a reason why we mentioned Jofra Archer, and Jofra Archer only, above. For last season, Rajasthan’s bowling, particularly in the powerplay, was one man and half-a-dozen pieces of wood. Even with Archer, RR had the worst economy rate (8.33) and the third-worst wickets-per-innings ratio in the first six overs. Take his contribution - 10 wickets at ER 4.35 - away and this is what RR’s performance in the powerplay looked like - 7 wickets in 58 overs @ ER 10.12 and average 83.85. And yes, let us give a polite reminder that Archer is certain to miss at least half the season; most likely the entire tournament.
So, are Rajasthan doomed in the powerplay this season, then?
Pretty much yes, unless one of their incumbents conjures the Archer-2020 spirit. Make no mistake, in Chris Morris, they have a new-ball bowler almost as good as Archer. But this ‘almost’ is significant. While Morris’ ER of 6.27 in the powerplay last season was elite, he only picked two wickets at 47-a-piece. None of the RR seamers - as we saw in the stat above - came remotely close to being threatening, so it will, in all likelihood, be a do-all situation for Morris.
But there is yet a way out of it. Should it get confirmed that Archer won’t partake in IPL 2021, RR might - or rather, should - look at a bowler like Jason Behrendorff. A new-ball specialist, Behrendroff has taken 13 wickets at ER 6.48 and avg 19.92 in 16 T20 matches in the powerplay since the start of 2020. He will improve their potency - drastically. Many are looking at Chetan Sakariya as a potential saviour, yes, but the fact remains that only 2 of his 12 wickets in SMAT 2020/21 came in the powerplay.
Middle-overs | Spinners not up to the mark; nowhere to hide
Surprisingly, RR fared okay-ish in the middle phase - neither too good, nor atrocious. They were bang in the middle (fourth out of eight teams) when it came to ER and average and their wicket-ratio of 1.78 was the fifth-best. Why they struggled was because of the toothlessness of their lead spinner, Shreyas Gopal. While the all-rounder, Tewatia, fared pretty well - 10 wickets @ ER 6.76 and average 27.7 in this phase - Gopal was shockingly bad. The Karnataka spinner, who was not-so-long-ago touted for India honours, took just 8 wickets at ER 8.81 and avg 40.8 in this phase. Their second-best bowler - not named Archer - in this phase was Kartik Tyagi, but while he was economical (ER 7.55) he only managed 2 wickets @ 40.8 a piece.
Do they have good alternatives?
Unfortunately, again, not too many. They do have another leggie, Mayank Markande, who did well for Punjab in SMAT 2020/21 - ER of 5.66 - but he, too, did not take wickets: just 0.71 per game. Morris only bowled 3 overs in this phase last season, and he NEEDS to be there for the death overs (soon we will be explaining why) and Chetan Sakariya took just a solitary wicket in SMAT 2020/21 in overs 7-14. In short, the best they can do is hope Tewatia continues being ‘Lord Tewatia’, Gopal rediscovers his 2019 form and Tyagi and Sakariya turn into Bumrah and Boult.
Death overs | J̶o̶f̶r̶a̶ ̶A̶r̶c̶h̶e̶r̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶.̶ ̶ Jofra Archer and Chris Morris. That is all.
At the death in IPL 2020, RR had numbers that could make even their biggest loyalist burst out in laughter. They had an ER of 11.17 - by far the worst in the league; no one else touched 11 - and an average of 39.35 which was, again, the worst in the league - the second-worst figure was 25.77. Take Archer’s contribution away and the number rises to 11.80 and 43 respectively. The main culprits were Ankit Rajpoot (13.17), Jaydev Unadkat (13.62) and Kartik Tyagi (10.22).
So what are they supposed to do?
Just cry? The main reason why they broke their bank for Morris was to provide Archer a support system towards the back end, but it now looks like the South African might have to instead replace Archer (Good luck with that). Luckily, he is quality. Last season, Morris maintained an ER of 7.83 in the final five overs - the best of anyone who took at least 8 wickets in the phase - and boasted an average of 11.89, again the best for anyone who bowled at least 12 overs at the death. He might have able support from young Chetan Sakariya, who took 75% (9/12) of his SMAT 2020/21 wickets in the final five overs, but whether the left-armer will be able to make the step up remains to be seen. Another left-armer, Mustafizur Rahman, might be a potential fix, but he is no longer the magician he once was in 2016: in his last 22 T20Is, Fizz’s ER at the death reads an unremarkable 9.81.
Like every other phase, RR will need all their bowlers to overperform to stand a chance of competing with the rest of the pack.
But there is more bad news
As attested above, RR will play 10 of their 14 matches at the Wankhede, Eden Gardens and Chinnaswamy. And - surprise, surprise - of the six allocated venues for IPL 2021, these three - Wankhede (176.14), Chinnaswamy (179.8), Eden (194) - oversaw the highest average first innings totals in IPL 2019. Good bowlers, very good bowlers - and we’re talking the Bumrahs and Malingas and Narines and Chahals - got slaughtered at these grounds two years ago, so you could only imagine what the fate of the RR bowlers will be, should they perform as poorly as they did last season.
In all honesty, RR might have come up short even if they had both Archer and Morris fully fit, but with their best bowler all but ruled out of the entire season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they end up 8th on all bowling charts this season. Who knew a friggin fish tank would influence an entire IPL season, eh?