With the victory against table toppers CSK, Rajasthan Royals are almost certain for a playoff spot. Barring a big slip-up, the Royals should finish among the top two and get a chance at qualifying for the IPL finals. The win also made it a perfect eight on eight record at home for Rajasthan and the Sawai Man Singh Stadium has proved itself to be more than just a namesake of the fortress.
A lot has been said and appreciated of Rahul Dravid's captaincy this season. He has been innovative, proactive and never maintained the same team for two games on the trot. He has epitomised the “Horses for Courses” cliche and it has worked 90% of the times. And the match against CSK was no different.
Being on the spicy Jaipur pitch, it was almost a given that Ajit Chandila would miss the game for a pacer — and he did. The replacement was not S Sreesanth or Rahul Shukla, but it was Vikramjeet Malik. The CSK team would not have seen much of him — giving him a surpise factor — and the debutant didn't disappoint with his three tidy overs for just 19 runs.
As it happened, the Royals restricted the Super Kings to a modest 141. With their flawless chasing record, they would have looked to make a mockery out of this small total. With the opening pair of Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul 1Dravid in imperious form, they were expected to deliver again. However, things didn't quite pan out according to plan — they were playing against the Chennai Super Kings after all! Mohit Sharma and Jason Holder made full use of the conditions on offer and made it difficult for the opening pair, and it didn't take long for the pressure to be converted into wickets.
In the third over, Rahane looked to break the shackles and tried to dismiss Holder through the on-side field. But all he managed to do was scoop a low catch to Murali Vijay at mid-on. The next batsman in was not Shane Watson, but James Faulkner — a surpising move on such a pitch. Faulkner was sent to play the pinch-hitter's role but he was back in the hut three balls later. The next batsman in was still not Watson. It was promising youngster Sanju Samson instead and even that experiment was not successful as he was caught behind off Mohit Sharma in the very next over.
With the score at 19-3 in 4.4 overs, Shane Watson finally walked in to give company to Rahul Dravid. Being a green pitch, one would want the team's best batsman to face a majority of the balls. But sending Faulkner and Samson when players like Watson and Hodge were sitting in the dug-out was kind of questionable. Even the commentators were not particularly pleased with the “defensive” move of protecting the best players from the swinging ball. But, by the time the match ended, they were lauding that very same move by Rahul Dravid.
Watson and Dravid steadied the ship till the ninth over and the swing started waning and the pitch was getting much more comfortable to bat on. Dravid scored 22 off 28 balls before being caught behind, leaving Rajasthan at 45-4 — an important innings considering the conditions. By accident or design, Dravid has almost always got out at the right time for the Royals. Stuart Binny walked in and started the onslaught with a six off Ashwin. It was then time for Watson to take over and the assault was stunning to say the least. Ashwin went for 23 in his solitary over. 81 runs were then scored off five overs with boundaries raining — and the Royals romped home.
The strategy of saving your best batsmen and giving them the easier conditions to strut their stuff is not the best way to go about things in a Test or an ODI. One can be pretty confident that in the five day game, Watson or Hodge would have walked in after the fall of Rahane. But in a 20 over contest, sending in your relatively unaccomplished players to face the music first up and saving the better for later is a strategy that will pay rich dividends, especially in bowler friendly conditions. Hence, the “lesser” batsmen in Samson and Faulkner were sent in first. Had they managed to be among the runs, it would have been great. If not, they still had a Watson and Hodge waiting in the hut.
Rahul Dravid had realized that and his plan turned out to be a masterstroke. The Royals finished the match off in less than 18 overs in spite of being 49-4 at the end of 10 overs. Hodge and Cooper didn’t even get to wield their bat. The T20 game is still in a very nascent stage but going forward, this could well turn out to be a more frequently used strategy by teams across the world. A few critics/purists may call it defensive — but anything that's effective can never be defensive.