In the end, there was no fairytale ending. Returning to the Indian Premier League after a two-year absence, the Rajasthan Royals did an admirable job reaching the playoffs, but eventually bowed out against the Kolkata Knight Riders in Eliminator 1.
The Royals can take great heart in pushing Kolkata to the brink in the Eliminator and in hindsight should have never lost the game after restricting the opposition to 4-51 at one stage. But in the end, it would be the lower-order strength of the Knight Riders compared to the Royals which would prove to be decisive. Coincidentally, the lack of penetration and the power-hitting in the middle order would prove to be the Achilles heel for the Royals right through the season and eventually end their season.
What went wrong?
It took a long time for the Royals coaching staff to create cohesion and to find the best XI. For the first four games, they stuck to the same players and lost three matches. They made players such as Rahul Tripathi and Jos Buttler bat out of positions while Ben Stokes’ horrible form with the bat had a detrimental effect, as the Royals kept posting below-par totals. The batting remained far too top-heavy and the middle order repeatedly struggled to add to the solid foundation at the top of the order. Add to that the fact that Jaydev Unadkat was not even half the bowler he was in IPL 2018 as previous years, meaning the team had no answers against batting assaults. It would be only after Jofra Archer returned in game six that the bowling finally had a recognised death bowler.
Turning point of the season
Undoubtedly, the promotion of Buttler to the opening slot was an influential moment in the Royals season. Since being bumped up to the top of the order, Buttler scored five consecutive fifties as the Royals managed to win four of those games to resurrect their season. Apart from Buttler’s heroics with the bat, it was the collective bowling performance with the ball against the Kings XI Punjab in late April, a match in which the Royals bowlers defended a total of 143 that gave them the confidence with the ball.
Buttler was arguably the player of the season for the Royals. Apart from him, it was the all-round performance of Krishnappa Gowtham that stood out. Gowtham opened the bowling on nine occasions and managed to snare some important scalps during the powerplay. He also had a couple of cameos with the bat lower down the order and showed he can hit the ball a long way.
Samson started off brilliantly and played some mature innings at the top of the order. There was a glimpse of consistency, but having played IPL for six seasons now possibly more is expected from the talented 24-year-old. Overall, it was still a good season for Samson.
It was a horrific IPL for Stokes. The English all-rounder only managed to get past 30 once and only took five wickets from his 14 matches. He was the most expensive player in the auction, but did little on the field to warrant the money. The coaching staff tried everything from promoting him to an opener and trying him as a finisher, but Stokes’ form continued to dip.
Jaydev Unadkat was another member with a million-dollar price tag around his neck, but the left-arm seamer was deplorable. His bowling seemed to lack the zip, he rarely swung a ball and the off-cutters that were lethal last season kept getting smashed into the stands.
D’Arcy Short quickly learnt that playing spin bowling in India is another kettle of fish. Short might have been a nightmare to bowl to on the fast bouncy Australian tracks, but in India he was clueless against the spinners. In the end, he walked away from the IPL with the nickname ‘Dot ball Darcy’.
Ajinkya Rahane also had a disappointing IPL. The Royals captain seemed to be indecisive about how to construct an innings. His mind seemed to be flustered and he rarely batted with the freedom we have been accustomed to in the past IPLs. As a captain, he tried to be pro-active, but from the outside it seemed like he had been overpowered by Shane Warne in some selection decisions.
What next for them?
Another season with the same crop of players is always beneficial. But one wonders if players such as Unadkat or Short will be retained by the franchise. One area they must address is lower order power-hitting. Perhaps it is also a time to look beyond Rahane, as an opening batsman and as a skipper. They also need a backup fast bowling all-around option. With the World Cup immediately after next year’s IPL, plenty of the top-ranked international players might not be available, so there needs to be more research in terms of team building and succession. We might just see a completely new setup next season.