Rajasthan Royals ended their disappointing IPL season with another loss at Feroz Shah Kotla at the hands of Delhi Capitals. With 11 points in 14 games, they go back to the drawing board now and wonder where it all went wrong.
For the Royals, it was a season where several individual performances shone through, but they rarely got together as a team. The leadership changed hands twice in the season. The usually assured Ajinkya Rahane was all over the place with his tactics on the field, and as the lynchpin of this batting order, his inconsistency reflected in the team's overall performance.
When the season started, the Royals batting order was looking very formidable. In Rahane, Jos Buttler, Sanju Samson, Steve Smith, and Ben Stokes, they had a top 5 who were all capable of winning games single-handedly on their day. Buttler in particular ranks amongst the most gifted stroke-makers in the modern game, and like last year seemed capable of carrying his team to the playoffs on his own when he started fluently against Kings XI Punjab in the opening match of the season.
The "Mankad incident" caused a domino effect over Rajasthan's season. The immediate result was the dismissal of Buttler. Even after his departure, the team were in a good position in the chase and should have closed the game, but it seemed Buttler's run out had first angered then deflated the whole dressing room.
After the game, the situation demanded calm heads to prevail, and a quick shifting of focus to the rest of the season instead of the loss. The team management though chose to brood over the Buttler run out and felt like victims. The head coach Paddy Upton spoke about it at the end of the game. Jofra Archer took a dig at Ashwin in a tweet that he later deleted.
A grumpy dressing room is often a split dressing room. Rahane showed statesmanship in never publicly criticizing his Indian teammate, but probably it didn't go well with the dressing room that had quite a few English players. Jos Buttler later admitted that he also allowed the incident to play on his mind for a few games.
In the next couple of games against Hyderabad and Chennai, Rajasthan put themselves in winning positions but squandered the advantage at crucial moments. They opened their account with a win against Royal Challengers Bangalore in their fourth game. In the next match against Kolkata Knight Riders, Smith and Buttler batted for themselves more than the team, and the paltry total of 140 was overhauled by the Knight Riders in the 14th over. A last-ball six from Santner in the next game meant Rajasthan lost another contest they should have won. They now had five losses in six games and were staring down the barrel.
Buttler finally showed his class in the seventh game against Mumbai helping his team register their second win. It was their last chance to rally and get on a roll, but once again their bogey team of the season, Kings XI Punjab closed them down at Mohali.
With six games to go now, Rajasthan Royals team management made a bold move. They handed over the captaincy to Steve Smith in a bid to resurrect their season. The move paid off brilliantly and revitalized the Royals towards their best run of the season with three wins in the next four games. Rahane started to play like the player we all know, and a 17-year-old rookie in Riyan Parag instilled some much-needed freedom in the middle order.
Even after Stokes, Buttler and Archer had left the team; the reinforcements did a splendid job in the win against Sunrisers Hyderabad in their 12th game. Varun Aaron, a name most people had forgotten on the Indian scene came back with a new bag of tricks. Oshane Thomas, the tall West Indian seamer also proved to be an able replacement. The duo along with Jaydev Unadkat played a crucial role in Rajasthan's late rally. They hit the pitch hard and varied their place and especially at home, batsmen found them hard to get away.
Rain played spoilsport at Bangalore and put the team in a situation where they had to depend on other results to qualify for the playoffs. But those calculations became moot when they lost the last game of the season against Delhi Capitals.
The final loss kind of summarised the season for the Royals. The batsmen didn't stand up and build partnerships. Parag was the only batsman who put up a fight with no support. In the field, they were defensive, unimaginative and chose safety even when the situation demanded an all-out attack.
If you look at the numbers from the season, individual performances like hundreds from Rahane or Samson stand out, but barring Smith and Buttler, no one could score more than one fifty. Shreyas Gopal and Riyan Parag were two bright spots for the team. Both these youngsters showed not just excellent skills, but also great temperament required to be successful at this level.
Going forward, the team management must shift their focus from buying overseas superstars and instead try to create an indigenous core. As the team itself showed in the latter stage of the tournament, winning games doesn't necessarily require great individual players, but solid team players working towards a unified goal.