One of the best all-format players in the world, who made a country bench tradition and pick him in their Test team on the back of IPL form. One of the world’s most in-demand death bowlers, on whose citizenship an entire nation waits. A true all-rounder, who besides being destructive with bat and ball, has been called as one of the most versatile fielders in the world. And the most fidgety talent in cricket, returning to the game after a banishment.
There are no questions about the quality of talent in the Rajasthan Royals side this IPL. There is no doubt about the ability of any of these players to single handedly win games. And with some smart purchases, there is even enough bench strength to shore up the side once the top flight is called away to prepare for the World Cup.
The only question, for Rajasthan Royals this year, is will they drop Ajinkya Rahane?
Will they drop the man who led them admirably in 2018, to a Playoff berth that few would have had them pencilled in for? Will they drop the man whose tactical acumen is established, who is India’s vice-captain in Tests, and as such, Virat Kohli’s choice of leader. Will the man who made 370 runs last season at the top of the order, and was the third highest run-getter for his team, be benched? And will such a move end his T20 career?
Sometimes you need to light a pyre to slow-cook a winning season; the signs do not bode well for Rahane. Steve Smith’s return sees their middle order significantly strengthened, and that might allow them to take more risks at the top, and returning Rahul Tripathi there in the company of Jos Buttler. It also gives the Royals a pedigreed captaincy option. With the game inching towards six-hitting every year, can a constructor of innings still find a place? Or will the team challenge him to reinvent his game? IPL sides have often been obdurately persistent with Rahane; it remains to be seen if RR’s new kit also comes with a new mindset.
There is only one spot in the middle order that is a matter of contention, with Sanju Samson likely to slot in at No. 4 and Krishnappa Gowtham at No. 5. One Indian batter will have to shore up the lower middle order. Manav Vohra could be asked to drop down from his usual opening slot, or Shashank Singh, who has a reputation for hitting the long ball, could be tried. But keep an eye out for 17-year old Riyan Parag. Parag missed most of India’s successful Under-19 World Cup campaign with a finger injury, but is a young batter who has all the shots and is easy on the eye.
Yet another department where Royals have quite few options. Jaydev Unadkat made news in the auction yet again, showing just how much teams value the left arm angle that he provides. And waiting in the wings are Varun Arron and Oshane Thomas of the Windies, as well as the wiles of Dhaval Kulkarni. Add that to Stokes and Archer, and that is a plentiful basket to pick from.
For a side mentored by Shane Warne, RR are slightly thin in this department. Ish Sodhi provides the foreign flavour, but may not get a look in if Shreyas Gopal does well. Mahipal Lomror waits in the wings, and Gowtham’s off-spin will complement the lead characters. The Sawai Man Singh Stadium in Jaipur is not a place a spinner would pick from a venue menu, which is why RR have bet heavily on pace. But when on the road, playing on tracks where their fast bowlers don’t get much off the pitch, RR might find themselves understaffed, especially if the spin department suffers the odd injury.
Despite the recent heroics of Ashton Turner, Smith, Buttler and Stokes are the three overseas players who will be automatic picks in the XI. Who RR use as the fourth might be a call taken on the basis of the conditions. Will the Royals go for the death bowling skills of Joffra Archer, or the only overseas spinner Ish Sodhi? The performance of their local players will dictate to a great extent what the balance of the side looks like, and indeed their position in two months time. But with this core, RR have the overseas players who can threaten any opposition, and the local talent to improve on their Playoff finish from last year.