Rajasthan Royals defied the conventions of T20 cricket on Wednesday, in their first home match of the Indian Premier League (IPL) season, by defending a total, that too in a rain-affected match. It was a rare feat, given how the first five matches of the season had all gone to a predictable feat — win the toss, field first and chase down the total.
But perhaps, had rain not intervened in the Royals' match against Delhi Daredevils, they might still be languishing at the bottom of the IPL table. But unseasonal showers gave them a slim hope, and the bowlers executed their plans brilliantly.
At 153 for five in 17.5 overs, with their array of international stars back in the pavillion, it looked like the Royals would post a below-par total of around 170. Instead, the rain intervened, and Daredevils were required to chase 71 from six overs.
But given the wet outfield and with 10 wickets in hand, Daredevils were still favourites. While in the past, the rules would have forced Royals to use five bowlers with the option of having only one bowler delivering a second over, recent rule changes meant they could give a second over to more bowlers. "In an interrupted match, the quota for a bowler in an innings reduced to 10 overs or less shall not be less than two overs", the changed rules state, meaning Royals could give a second over to both Jaydev Unadkat and Ben Laughlin.
Royals' skipper Ajinkya Rahane gambled by opening with an off-spinner, K Gowtham, who conceded 10 in the opening over, but the run-out of Colin Munro, a man capable of smashing it from get-go, bumped up the asking rate even higher.
The second over and the last of the Powerplay, bowled by the wily veteran Dhawal Kulkarni, was to be the turning point of the match. It is widely known that Glenn Maxwell likes to give himself room by backing away to hit through the off-side, and so Kulkarni followed him with a full ball on his pads, making the Australian hit it in his weaker zone. Sensing Maxwell's and Daredevils' desperation to hit the ball hard, Kulkarni — and Ben Laughlin after him — had a simple plan: Of bowling slower balls and yorkers.
Rahane too set his fields accordingly, and didn't manipulate them too much, meaning the batsmen were never sure of what the bowler would send at him. It was always one or the other, and the Royals' bowlers executed the plan perfectly.
It's rare that a team actually manages to defend against a target of 71 in six overs, but Royals were brilliant with the ball. They kept it simple and let the asking rate play havoc in the minds of Daredevils' star-studded batting line-up that included power hitters like Maxwell, Munro, Rishab Pant, Chris Morris and Shreyas Iyer.
Royals need to address batting woes
The truncated game may have proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Royals, but there are plenty of issues they need to address. The addition of Ish Sodhi to the squad has strengthened their spin attack, especially on pitches that will aid turn, but it's their batting they need to fix.
Rahul Tripathi needs to be reinstated at No.3 and Rahane needs to bat with freedom, without any preconceived plans. Currently, it appears that Rahane is so conscious of his role and the need for him to bat deep into the innings that he is curtailing his strokeplay. He is batting with a sense of burden.
Against Daredevils, he tried the anchor role initially, then tried to stamp his authority with some ambitious strokes, but only ended up perishing by chipping the ball to cover. Royals have the luxury of having Jos Buttler and even Ben Stokes to play in the middle-order, so the top-order needs to go hard. And Rahane must set the tone. He has become too obsessed with the role he has assigned for himself in the last two seasons.
Having Stokes at No.3 is baffling given his troubles against Trent Boult only two weeks ago in New Zealand. Also the fact that Stokes' strike-rate is actually higher when batting outside the Powerplay seems to suggest he is more dynamic even with the field spread out.
The fact that D'arcy Short was run-out early in both innings has not helped Royals, for he is one man capable of batting deep into the innings and play an expansive game. Last year, he had scored a century and four fifties, even more of a reason for Rahane to be more explosive.
Another aspect they need to ensure is to see to it that Sanju Samson is batting high up the order, ideally at No.4, or even as a floater.
The win will certainly get the monkey of Royals' back. They are sure to be less tense in the next game and we might just seem their batting really click into gear. For now though, the rain and the bowlers have put a smile in their camp.