The tournament has not begun but Rajasthan Royals already have much to think about. They have always had more things to think about before a season, between the seasons, at least in the last two years, finding themselves in a spot of bother, majorly due to key players underperforming or leaving or not joining the squad due to various reasons.
In 2018, they received a big jolt days before the IPL when captain Steve Smith was handed a year ban due to ball tampering. The season was not a total failure with Ajinkya Rahane taking the side to the playoffs, luck playing its part notwithstanding. In 2019, the likes of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler left the team at a crucial stage of the tournament as they had to prepare for the upcoming World Cup in England and they also saw change in captaincy due to poor run in the season under Rahane.
Since their comeback, Rajasthan have not really played consistently with their full strength.
And 2020, it seems, is no different.
Ben Stokes, who left for New Zealand after the first Test against Pakistan in August, to be with his family and ailing father, has yet not joined the Rajasthan Royals camp and coach Andrew McDonald is calling the Stokes situation 'a difficult scenario'. That there is no clarity when the all-rounder can join the team and there is no clear communication happening between the team and him, at the moment.
The team also received a scare when their captain Steve Smith missed the first two ODIs against England due to concussion but RR are not bothered about that with the skipper clearing the test to play in the third ODI. However, the build-up already has had its share of start-stops for RR, a trend that ceases to go.
That aside, the Rajasthan Royals have a solid team at their disposal. With some new faces coming in, they have tried to fill many gaps. A big change that happened last year was in the form of a trade when they got rid of their former captain Ajinkya Rahane, also their highest run-getter. Rahane has played most of his IPL cricket at Rajasthan and his removal from captaincy was an indication that the management was losing interest in him. That decision may have a lot to with the new coach McDonald, who was appointed the head coach of the team last year. In an interview to Firstpost, he had mentioned how it is important for players to win the key games and how the players decide that outcome.
Aim. Set. Match. 💥
— Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) September 15, 2020
"The first part of improvement comes through your playing list. If you can put a list together that can play the style of cricket you want to play, in particular at home. If you can bank a lot of wins at home, generally winning more than 50 percent of the games normally gets you in so the retention, trading and auction will be critical in improving the playing list," he had said.
Coaching is not new to McDonald, who has had successful stints with Leicestershire, Victoria, and Melbourne Renegades. With RR, he is trying to do the same, that is win the trophy for the first IPL champions.
The one key area that needed improvement as per McDonald is the bowling and they have roped in some fresh and experienced talent last auction to fill the gap. With experienced Andrew Tye and Tom Curran brought in, alongside youngsters Kartik Tyagi and Akash Singh, the fast bowling group looks good. Jaydev Unadkat, who has not fired much since joining RR on their comeback, will be under pressure to come good this season. Not to forget Archer who is in good form in the ongoing series against Australia. Varun Aaron and Oshane Thomas make a good bench strength.
In UAE, the spinners would play a huge role and while RR have a good number of spinners in their ranks, what they lack are range and experience. They have three leg-breaks in Shreyas Gopal, Mayank Markande, and Rahul Tewatia and one slow left-arm orthodox in Mahipal Lomror. Among them, only Gopal can be counted as an experienced campaigner. Lack of enough spinning options on expectedly turning tracks in UAE may disturb the team balance at some stage.
With Stokes set to miss some games (maybe the whole tournament), expect David Miller to take the responsibility of batting at No 4/5. An interesting addition last year has also been of Robin Uthappa who excelled batting at No 3 for KKR for a long time. Let's see whether he gets to bat at the same position here or it is Steve Smith who comes in to bat at the fall of first wicket. What Rajasthan may miss is a powerful hitter at the deep end of the innings.
Last season did not go on expected lines despite them having a balanced team. Lack of quality leadership, key players not stepping up, and late reinstating of Steve Smith as captain were among few reasons why the campaign went off track. The new season has already thrown some challenges at the team but with a better approach and fresh thinking, and a young brigade of players, they can become a big threat to the other seven teams. How much involved Shane Warne is with the team for how long will also be interesting to see.
Their major worry has been the inability to finish games and not winning the crunch moments in the matches. The Aussie duo of Smith and McDonald will be aiming to fix it this season. But Stokes' absence will make this problem even more challenging.
Rajasthan Royals squad: Varun Aaron, Akash Singh, Anuj Rawat, Jofra Archer (Overseas), Jos Buttler (overseas), Tom Curran (overseas), Shreyas Gopal, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Aniruddha Joshi, Mahipal Lomror, Kartik Tyagi, Mayank Markande, David Miller (overseas), Riyan Parag, Shashank Singh, Steve Smith (overseas, captain), Ben Stokes (overseas), Rahul Tewatia, Oshane Thomas, Andrew Tye (overseas), Jaydev Unadkat, Robin Uthappa, Manan Vohra
Rajasthan play their first game on 22 September against Chennai Super Kings at Sharjah. The match will start at 7. 30 PM and will broadcast on Star Sports and Hotstar. You can also follow the live scorecard on Firstpost.com.
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Mumbai Indians after their facile eight-wicket win over Rajasthan Royals still have a negative run-rate of -0.048 and not only do they need to win against Sunrisers Hyderabad but also expect that KKR lose to Royals a day before to make their passage easier.
The loser on Tuesday will be out of the tournament but then KKR are already on 14 points with a positive NRR of +0.294.
Stokes posted a photograph showing him holding a bat with his bandaged finger and the words: "12th April broken finger. 11th October first time since breaking being able to get it round my handle."