Barring a mathematical miracle, IPL 2018 is over for Rajasthan Royals. It has been a season of disappointment for their high-profile players. The lack of coaching experience in the dugout has stood out and the cohesiveness that is so crucial for franchise-based T20 cricket has been missing.
At the Eden Gardens on Tuesday against the Kolkata Knight Riders, all the cracks in the Royals outfit were exposed in a six-wicket loss. Ironically, it was the Royals most productive power-play of the season, but the inexplicable middle-order collapse that has been a trend throughout the tournament continued.
For the first time the Royals seemed like to have struck the right note in terms of opening partnership with Jos Buttler and Rahul Tripathi. It would be the seventh opening combination the Royals had experimented with and it finally had a nice ring to it. The reason it has taken the team so long to work out the right combination is the lack of experience in the coaching staff.
Shane Warne might be the mentor of the team, but he has not spent adequate time to know what works for a certain player. Coaches from other teams have at least worked with three or four players through various stints, but in Warne, Amol Muzumdar and Sairaj Bahutule, it was a fresh start. Rarely do teams excel in such environments. Warne might have done it as a player on the field, but it is difficult to manoeuvre fielders and speak to bowlers constantly from the dugout.
The other influential figure in the Royals structure, the captain and leader, Ajinkya Rahane, has neither hit his straps with the bat nor with the captaincy. Rahane’s attempted reverse sweep off the bowling of Kuldeep Yadav that ended up with him losing his wicket was the perfect indication of a batsman who had lost belief in his game.
At the time Rahane lost his wicket, the Royals were scoring at over nine runs an over and all the situation required was for him to bat sensibly for another three or four overs and lay the foundation alongside Buttler. A captain low on confidence is not an ideal situation in any team and to make matters worse, Rahane seems to be fighting within himself about his batting style.
It’s fair to say the season could have been far worse had it not been for the form of Buttler. Since opening the batting, he has made the Royals a different team and ensured their curtains on their season were not drawn earlier.
For a while now, the Indian selectors have been criticised for picking a national team on back of IPL form, but now even the England selectors have taken the same path. Buttler’s blistering form, which included five consecutive half-centuries, led to him being picked in the national Test team.
One also ponders how the season might have panned out had Jofra Archer not missed the first six games of the year. It has been the Archer and Buttler show in the last three weeks. Sadly, no other player has been able to elevate their game even a notch. Sanju Samson has faded towards the fag end and the two most prized recruits in Jaydev Unadkat and Ben Stokes continued their disappointing form in Kolkata.
Strangely enough, Unadkat has only opened the bowling twice throughout the season. It is once again a sign of the Royals being far too obsessed with opening with a spinner and preventing Unadkat from bowling to his strength of swinging the ball. It is another example of the Royals being far too unidimensional with their plans and strategies.
The depth in the squad cannot be questioned, but the balance of the team has been mystifying right through the season. It is difficult to understand how D’Arcy Short has managed to play eight matches despite looking clueless against spinners. Add to that the baffling fact that the Royals failed to make a single change to the playing XI for the first four games despite losing three matches.
Then there is the fielding. The Royals dropped the most catches in the IPL amongst all the eight teams. Tripathi’s simple drop of Shane Watson, led to the Super Kings opener smashing a ton and taking a game out of their reach. Fielding mishaps are part of the game, but they were far too frequent for the Royals and possibly ended up costing them two or possibly three games.
On a positive note, rarely did the Royals stop competing. The Royals late season resurgence is a sign of the competitive attitude that Warne, along with the coaching staff, has instilled in the team. The way Stokes bowled at the end of the game on Tuesday night is remarkable. He could have easily thrown in the towel, but he kept fighting until the end.
At the end of the day, the fighting spirit can only get you so far and it is the execution of the skills that is the difference. Sadly, for the Royals they have fallen behind in that regard.