The Rajasthan Royals were widely tipped to feature in the Indian Player League play-offs by many experts at the start of the season. They eventually achieved the milestone, finishing fourth, thanks to results favouring them in the last weekend.
From the outset the expectations had been high. The Royals had purchased two of the most expensive players in the auction. They had also recruited Shane Warne as the mentor and the squad seemed to have plenty of depth.
However, before the start of the season their nominated captain, Steve Smith was ruled out for the season with IPL governing body deciding to ban the Australian for his role in the ball tampering saga. The team management were also informed that Jofra Archer had suffered an injury in the lead-up to the tournament and will miss the first 4-5 matches.
The early setbacks seem to affect their performance in the opening match as the Royals were trounced by the Sunrisers Hyderabad by nine wickets.
It might well have been the same tale in the next match against the Daredevils, but the rain came to their rescue and the truncated match resulted in an unlikely win.
On the back of one victory came the scintillating performance of Sanju Samson. The emerging star smashed 92 from 45 balls against the Royal Challengers in Bangalore to push the Royals third on the IPL table.
But slowly the cracks in the Royals team started to emerge. While D'Arcy Short continued his struggles at the top of the order against spin bowling, Ben Stokes was finding it difficult to live up to his heavy price tag.
In between the constant ignorance of Rahul Tripathi as an opening batsman meant the Royals were still far too fixated with one plan. It resulted in back-to-back losses and a dive down the ladder.
It took a heroic late-order cameo from Krishnappa Gowtham to salvage an unlikely win against the Mumbai Indians. It was also the game that Archer returned to the fray and looked like a world beater.
With three wins from the first six games, the Royals headed into a seven day break sitting inside the top four and probably thinking the best days were still ahead of him. But if anything the break seemed to halt the Royals' momentum as they lost their next two matches forcing them to seventh on the IPL ladder.
Perhaps the game changer was their performance against the Kings XI Punjab. After posting a below par score of 8-158, the Royals managed to restrict the high famed Kings XI batting to just 143. The win would prove to be massive confidence builder.
It would also be the start of Buttler’s red hot streak with the bat. It had taken the Royals an eternity to push the England wicket-keeper to the opening slot and once given the opportunity, he didn’t disappoint.
On the back of Buttler’s form, the Royals' batting started to gain confidence and the team found some momentum. Three wins on the bounce near the back end of the season suddenly pushed the Royals in contention for the play-offs. All of a sudden they had a dynamic opening batsman in Buttler, a rejuvenated skipper in Ajinkya Rahane, a genuine wicket taker and a death bowler in Archer and the inclusion of Ish Sodhi gave the team a more of a balanced looked.
On the downside, Stokes’ continued to disappoint and Unadkat’s form left plenty to be desired. In between K. Gowtham continued to impress with his multi-functional role.
The loss against Kolkata in the penultimate match meant the Royals needed a minor miracle to qualify for the playoffs. But results started to go their way. The Kings XI kept losing while the Mumbai Indians lost games they should have won.
But the Royals had to win their final game against Bangalore, that too without Stokes and their leading run-scorer, Buttler, both of whom had to leave due to their selection in the England national team.
The odds were against them, especially with Bangalore needing 90 off the 69 balls with nine wickets in hand. But as had been the case for most of the year, the Royals found an unlikely hero in Shreyas Gopal. The leg-spinner took 4-16 to propel the Royals to an unlikely win.
For the next two days the Royals held their breath and the four matches on the final weekend ebbed and flowed. But by late Sunday, they knew their fate. They had just sneaked into fourth spot.
Call it luck or by fortune, but the Royals are still alive in IPL 2018 and face the Kolkata Knigh Riders in the Eliminator on Wednesday. It will be tough ask, they will be missing Stokes and Buttler, the crowd will be against them at the Eden Gardens and on paper they look like underdogs, but as they have proven throughout the season, it is when their back has been against the wall that they have played their best cricket. It will be crazy to write them off because they are more than capable of a surprise or two. It has been the path they have treaded along all the way.
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