Do you know why franchise cricket — in its T20 avatar — is so fascinating? A single moment can change the course of an entire season (or tournament), for good or bad. Turn back time to the 2020 IPL season in UAE, and for Chennai Super Kings, that moment happened when Suresh Raina walked out of the bio-bubble and returned home. Shell-shocked, CSK never recovered and their season spiralled out of control and to great depths.
Rajasthan Royals are experiencing something similar at the moment. Their story of the 2021 IPL season took a downward spiral the moment Ben Stokes injured his hand and was ruled out of the tournament. Imagine planning an entire season around a strategy wherein Stokes opens the batting, while Jos Buttler is slotted at number four. They even made space for this purpose, releasing Steve Smith from the squad, and this move has now royally (pun intended) come back to bite where it hurts the most.
It can always be argued that this particular strategy was flawed from the start. Buttler is pointedly Rajasthan’s best batsman, and the thumb rule of T20 cricket is to allow your best batsmen to face the most number of deliveries. However, this confusion over batting spots isn’t the Royals’ problem alone — even the English set-up is currently struggling to find a spot for Stokes as was evident in the T20 series against India prior.
The underlying point however is about the lack of optimal resources on the Royals’ bench, and to a further extent, the lack of planning. With Smith gone, and Stokes injured, there is no proper batting core for Rajasthan Royals to fall back upon. Among overseas batsmen, they have David Miller and Liam Livingstone. The former hasn’t had a consistent run in IPL, which has seen him relegated to benches than first-choice playing elevens. The latter hasn’t been able to set himself up as a frontline batsman either, playing only four matches (at the time of writing) since Rajasthan picked him up in the 2019 auctions.
That leaves Royals dependent on the likes of Sanju Samson, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Rahul Tewatia, Manan Vohra, Riyan Parag, Mahipal Lomror, Shivam Dube, and Shreyas Gopal. Let us be honest — this isn’t exactly a list of batsmen that will scare any current IPL bowling attack. Samson is their most prolific batsman, but even by his standards, consistency is often found wanting despite impressive knocks in any IPL season.
IPL is often celebrated for the exuberance of youth and how young Indian batsmen grab their opportunities to showcase raw talent. This is only possible by mixing it up with proper experience brought in by well-recognized internationals. Can Devdutt Padikkal make an impression without Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers? Can Ruturaj Gaikwad without MS Dhoni and Raina, or even Faf du Plessis? Can the youngsters at Sunrisers Hyderabad do without David Warner, Kane Williamson, and Jonny Bairstow, or the ones at Kolkata Knight Riders without Eoin Morgan, Dinesh Karthik, and Andre Russell?
Look at any and every IPL franchise, and you will find youth is interspersed with experience for that is the only way forward. Perhaps with the exception of Rajasthan Royals, now finding themselves in an unenviable position of relying on two batsmen to do most of the heavy lifting — Samson and Buttler.
Monday night was a proper example of this situation. Chasing 189 in Mumbai, they had one big flourish from Buttler (49), and two smaller ones from Samson (17) and Tewatia (20). It is not going to be enough in a highly competitive league, and unless the Royals come up with a proper replacement for Stokes, it is going to be a very long season for this team.
Their batting collapse meant Chennai Super Kings garnered an easy two points and rode up to second in the league standings. Two other teams also have four points, so that’s not the highlight here. Instead, it is the run-rate — CSK have benefitted immensely from this 45-run win and their current NRR is a massive +1.194, the highest in the table. CSK, and Dhoni, know the art of managing points and run-rate, so it won’t be a surprise to see them sneak into the play-offs spots. But, are they good enough on the field?
This win against Royals was a quintessential Chennai one. There were no standout performances, no individuals who shone alone or won the game single-handedly. This was a coming together of a sum of parts for CSK, with equal contributions from every department.
No batsman scored a half-century, and Faf’s 33 was the highest on this night, and yet CSK reached a very healthy 188-9. Moeen Ali picked up a late 3-for-7 but the damage was already done in a collective bowling performance. Perhaps Ravindra Jadeja, with his multiple fielding and catching efforts, can be counted as one brilliant individual performance. That will hardly suffice over the course of a season, though.
The bottom-line for Chennai may have been two full points from a game they won easily, but it was no more than a stuttering performance. A batting line-up better than Royals’ could — and probably would — have punished them, and we have already seen Delhi Capitals chase down 189 against this same Chennai attack, on the same ground, with ease.
Undoubtedly, Chennai Super Kings were the better team on the night. But comparing to how Rajasthan Royals are suffering at the moment, it isn’t saying a lot. Chennai’s next two games at Mumbai — against Kolkata and Bangalore — will reveal a lot more about their proper standing in this IPL season.
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Australian media outlets reported that Hussey can join fellow countrymen in Maldives if he returns another negative test.
Unless there is a drastic change for the lower half of the table – be it in their form, and/or fortune, and fickle-mindedness – this could be a rather long second half for RR, PBKS, KKR, and SRH.
The English World Cup winner says his team has improved gradually, but should now focus on managing the middle part of the innings better, in both departments.