After eight overs, Rajasthan Royals were placed at 56-1 on Friday. It was an odd score – usually teams average around 10 runs per over batting at Sharjah. Sure, the wicket seemed slower and they were chasing an unusually “below-par” 185. But, seven per over at Sharjah, in the 2020 Indian Premier League, just doesn’t seem right.
Steve Smith fell at the start of the ninth over then. Sanju Samson walked out to bat. He struggled against Anrich Nortje’s pace and managed to walk to five runs off nine balls, when he suddenly hoisted Marcus Stoinis high into the Sharjah sky. Two weeks ago, that shot would have sailed over the boundary, past the stands and maybe even across the road.
But 14 days is a long time in cricket, and even longer in T20 cricket. Two weeks ago, Samson was seeing them like a football and hitting them all the way to Dubai from Sharjah. The current version of him is a pale shadow of that in-form batsman, but not an unfamiliar sight. 74, 85, 8, 4, 0 and 5 is his current string of scores— it is mostly in keeping with how Samson performs in the IPL.
Turn the clock back a bit, and in 2019, Samson scored 342 runs in 12 innings with only one 50-plus score. 102 runs came in that one knock with the rest 240 in 11 innings – a poor return indeed. 2018 was relatively better with 441 runs in 15 innings, but he still only had three 50-plus scores, which paled in comparison to other Indian batsmen. Shreyas Iyer (four), Suryakumar Yadav (four) and Rishabh Pant (four plus one century), the batsmen who are in competition with Samson presumably, all had more.
In 2017, he had 386 runs in 14 innings with one hundred and two fifties— 200 runs in three innings. In 2016, it was just 291 runs in 14 innings with only one half-century. If you need to be told, there is a pattern here with Samson. A couple big knocks and then nothing— he is frustratingly inconsistent. The good scores will help get words from high profile Twitterati (politicians and ex-cricketers) but the underlying inconsistency is all that matters. It is the reason why it has taken so long for Samson to even break through the Men in Blue’s fringe ranks.
However, this isn’t about Samson alone. It is about how his form has become symptomatic of Rajasthan Royals’ overall form. There is no denying he is a key asset for them, along with overseas talents like Jos Buttler, Steve Smith, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer. But no IPL franchise can find success without an Indian talent holding down fort. At age 25, Samson is clearly one of the Royals’ anchoring batting talents for any IPL season, and without him achieving individual success, they cannot achieve any collectively.
This isn’t about Samson’s failure alone. Even so, he encapsulates what has become of Rajasthan Royals in the last four matches. They are an incoherent, inconsistent bunch of players that are searching for solutions. They won their first two games in Sharjah— one of them an absolute fluke thanks to Rahul Tewatia – but since then have struggled for both form and team balance.
There is inconsistency in team selection and it is hurting them most of all. The Royals have an overseas core of players but beyond that, they are struggling to make a lasting impression. Robin Uthappa and Jaydev Unadkat have come a cropper. The likes of Riyan Parag, Mahipal Lomror and Ankit Rajpoot are too young to be dependable. Yashasvi Jaiswal and Kartik Tyagi are too raw – this cannot be their season. It results in that over-dependency on Samson, which is too much of a burden for him. Not to mention, Buttler and Smith haven’t set the stage alight themselves.
While Rajasthan now await Ben Stokes as their saviour after four successive losses, Delhi Capitals are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Five wins in six games are noteworthy in any season, and particularly in the current context, as every franchise has met its own set of challengers. For Delhi, it was mostly about getting an in-sync tune out of its collection of cricketers.
Truth told, Delhi match Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders as the strongest squads on display in the 2020 IPL. Unlike Kolkata and Bangalore though, they had a nucleus in place from the 2019 season wherein Ricky Ponting-Shreyas Iyer ushered the team into the knockouts and broke an achievement ceiling for the franchise after a long time. This time around then, it is all about going that one step further.
And so far, it seems to be working. They have only lost to Sunrisers Hyderabad, never mind the opening game’s Super Over win over Kings XI Punjab. Points on board is all that matters, not how you get them, but the Capitals’ methods – an extension of coach Ponting’s methods – have worked to the point. There is consistency in team selection, barring injuries, and depending on situation, they have stuck to their adaptability regarding three pacers or spinners in attack.
Perhaps the root cause of their success is in their batting line-up’s consistency. Every game, someone or the other has put their hand up, and there is no over-reliance on any one particular batsman, unlike Rajasthan. Sample this – four of their six frontline batsmen are in the top 20 run-getters’ list, and five in the top 30. Barring Shikhar Dhawan, all of them are striking the ball at 130-plus.
For a batting line-up that is clicking so well, Friday’s win was a further booster, if you didn’t think it possible. The only batsman who was missing out thus far was Shimron Hetmyer, mostly on account of batting at number six. There are only so many deliveries in the T20 format and if the top-order gets going, the latter batsmen struggle to find time. Reduced to 79-4 in the 10th over then, it was the perfect chance for Hetmyer to come good.
And he grabbed that chance quite well, his flashy 45 off 24 balls setting up the game for Delhi. On a shorter ground, it didn’t seem surprising that Hetmyer came good; it was no slam-bang but calculated hitting, the very specific role assigned to both him and Marcus Stoinis. Together they set the base for Delhi’s tail to wag and although they fell short of what would have been a par-200 score, it was enough for their bowlers to defend.
This is where the other aspect shines through for the Capitals. Arguably, they have the best bowling attack of the tournament. While Amit Mishra’s withdrawal is a blow, they still have enough quality in R Ashwin and Axar Patel, two white-ball experts who strangle batting line-ups at will. They can man the powerplay overs as good as the middle or death overs, giving a free hand to their captain. It was a well-rehearsed script on Friday then, with Ashwin strangling the Rajasthan top-order.
Getting rid of Buttler was key, for he can freely attack the faster bowlers and use their pace. Delhi are currently happy to use the three-pacer formula and it has allowed Kagiso Rabada to express himself. There is so much to like about him in the T20 format, using his pace and height to great advantage on these UAE pitches that are affording him good bounce. Then, there is his bowling intelligence, and the batsmen simply find it impossible to score off him. Even Tewatia couldn’t replicate his match-winning miracle once the early damage was done.
It is almost a guarantee that wickets will come from Rabada – 15 already in six matches thus far. Further balance is found in Stoinis bowling if need be, and this makes Delhi’s first choice team an optimal one. It is no surprise they are seated at top of the table with 10 points from six games, and will be there at least until Sunday evening when they take on Mumbai Indians (Abu Dhabi), which many are touting as a potential clash for the 2020 IPL title.
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"To lose wickets and to still beat the team at the top of the table feels good. We have beaten them twice now," Virat Kohli said.
Capitals were the best team in the league and their 20-point finish at the group stage was an indication of their consistent performances which didn't dip due to the COVID-19 forced break.
While the Delhi side (20 points from 13 matches) has made sure of a top-two finish, a defeat at the hands of Sunrisers Hyderabad on Wednesday night has dented RCB's chances of ending second in the points table.