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Cricket news - Nowhere with stars, nowhere without them
Something seemed wrong, something missing right through. Maybe it was just a missing piece in the puzzle that could've put everything right, or perhaps it was a case of everybody trying to be that missing piece, with the main spine of the puzzle missing. But this campaign was as un-Rajasthan a season could get.
The points table is misleading enough. After all, it was just one point and a few NRR decimals that stood in between a side that qualified for the play-offs at number four and the side that finished last. Rajasthan - who finished seventh - could just as easily be fooled into believing it was after all one result, and they had no shortage of close encounters, that cut short their campaign. Sadly for them, the mirage ends there, for at no given point in the last 43 days of the league were they in contention to qualify.
So the campaign seemed to have started well, with Jos Buttler starting off exactly where he left in 2018, with yet another half-century as he was easing the Royals home in a chase against KXIP. But R Ashwin, with his much-scrutinized mankading, derailed him, the chase, and probably their entire campaign. It took them another two losses to recover before they finally got a win under their belt at home against RCB, only to lose a couple more after that. Under desperate situations in the second half, where every game was practically a knockout, they managed to keep themselves alive mathematically, but Bengaluru's rain washed away the minuscule of hope they'd been holding on to.
Nothing explains the royal confusion better than when the Royals' management halfway through the campaign decides to drop Steve Smith owing to a lack of runs, then strips Ajinkya Rahane of his captaincy a match later and blames it on his scratchy personal form with the bat, hence having to draft Smith back, now crowned as the skipper too, before handing over the reins back to Rahane because Smith has to leave early, because, hey, who else?!
So what worked for them?
The fact that there were a couple of other teams doing just as badly for company and the overcrowding right until the end in the middle of the points table did constantly give them hope. Shreyas Gopal's leg-spin was a revelation. Sanju Samson's 'beautiful' knocks were there once more. Jos Buttler - although not in his 2018's beast mode - had a few opposition-demoralizing knocks at the top. Jofra Archer clearly was a treat to watch. Riyan Parag's maturity, at 17, was an object of envy.
The switch in captaincy from Rahane to Smith, just a few hours before their match against the Mumbai Indians, seemed to help both parties. While Smith returned to his number three spot and clearly appeared to have better control over his game as he responded with two half-centuries, Rahane too found a degree of abandon, even notching up a century.
What pulled them back?
The Royals, in all their successful years, have been a proper team effort - with some lesser known, some unheard of names chipping in under the radar to pull them through. This season's blame, however, was down to the failure of their big names. Steve Smith took nearly half the season to get into his groove on the back of his elbow surgery. It took Ben Stokes the entire season to figure out his timing. Ajinkya Rahane, the captain, was a heavy burden on Ajinkya Rahane, the batsman.
Jaydev Unadkat once again seemed lost on confidence. Stokes seemed a reduced bowler. Krishnappa Gowtham - a pale self of his last year's show - bowling the important overs seemed to be playing into the hands of the opposition.
But in a nutshell, the misfiring Stokes was too big a blow to handle. It also didn't help that his replacement - Ashton Turner - coming on the back of his match-winning knock against India at Mohali churned out three consecutive ducks.
What did they sorely miss?
If only there were some calm heads around in crunch situations! Take the first game for instance - RR needed 76 runs in 7.1 overs with eight wickets in hand when Buttler was mankaded, and they ended up with a stunning collapse to end up 14 runs short. In both their games against CSK, they were knocking on the door, only to choke and have the door knocked over on their face. Even in their final league game - a must win - it was down to poor Riyan Parag to lift them past 100, when the rest of the batting seemed more keen on slogging their way out of trouble on a dicey Kotla track, where even 130 could've been worthy of a defence.
Signing of the season
Riyan Parag. Completely out of the unknown and from a relatively non-cricketing state like Assam, Parag turned out to be Rajasthan's trump card in the second half. Picked up for his base price of INR 20 lakhs, he brought in a great deal of rawness that comes with his youth, unafraid to take on the reputations of Bumrah and Malinga. With two match-winning forties and an anchored fifty - that made him the youngest in the history of the IPL to get to that milestone - he's someone the management could look to build their middle-order around. With the ball too, he had the complete package - leg-breaks, googles, carrom balls, finger-rollers, seam up.
What's on the highlights reel?
Shreyas Gopal and his victims. Now he doesn't go after the small fish. It's the whales he's after, and he's gotten himself quite an enviable list against his name: Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Jonny Bairstow, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Quinton de Kock, Shimron Hetmyer, Chris Lynn, Kane Williamson, Marcus Stoinis, Shreyas Iyer. His celebrations top it off, running, not quite with the Imran Tahir velocity, but with the surprised look at having picked such a big name, covering his mouth in sheer joy as he goes about his run.
What was impressive though was his control, especially in the powerplay, and a neat mix of conventional leg-breaks and googlies, something that was on full display in both games against RCB, which included a hat-trick as well.
On a scale of 1 to 10 ...
Auction and retention strategy: 5.5/10
It was no secret that with England playing a series against Ireland and Pakistan and Australia summoning their players back home for a World Cup preparatory camp towards the second half of the season, the Royals were set to be affected the most, losing all their first choice players. That left them with a hole in every department to plug, which they did with Liam Livingstone as the backup opener in Buttler's absence, who did decently, Oshane Thomas as the reserve death bowler for Archer, who ought to have been drafted in much earlier, Ashton Turner as the middle-order glue, who did himself no favours.
Their strategy of buying back a released Jaydev Unadkat for something cheaper didn't quite go to plan either; maybe it was too apparent a strategy for other teams to not exploit, drawing a generous number of bids. The biggest positive came from the most unexpected quarters in the form of Parag.
Batting output: 5/10
Having nobody in the top ten run-scorers list, and just one entry in the top 20 should sum it up well. They - not surprisingly - were over-reliant on Buttler at the top to get them the runs, and although he didn't disappoint, he barely got any support from the other end. Rahane shunting himself all around the batting order didn't help his cause either and neither did trying out eleven different opening options. Samson was the usual, starting off with a bang before plateauing rather tamely. The other Indian names - Tripathi, Gowtham, Lomror, Chopra - were either underused or misused.
Bowling prowess: 6.5/10
Beyond Shreyas Gopal, who's the only RR bowler in the top ten list, and the usual suspect, Jofra Archer, there was nothing consistent. Dhawal Kulkarni would start off decently in his first spell, go haywire in the second, Unadkat, apart from the one Man of the Match performance, something he "needed badly", was a disappointment and Stokes, in short, was struggling. Varun Aaron, although sparingly used was decent with the new ball and Thomas, come 2020, could be a starting member. But in 2019's comparative terms, the bowling coupled with some stunning takes in the field, was a definite stronger suit.
Overall performance: 5.5/10
They were no favourites; they never have been in fact. It speaks volumes of the talent they possess given that they've beaten the table-toppers Mumbai twice and could easily have beaten CSK - second on the list - twice as well. It was the smaller moments they let go of, which has culminated in them being where they are. Irrespective, they continue the Royals' history of throwing up new Indian names quite well.
Is 2019 an improvement on 2018?
Clearly not. Sure they'd made the play-offs a year earlier with a very similar team, and were definitely better off in terms of experience, but their misfiring big names and the lack of replacements was too big a jolt for them to absorb. Also, 2018 saw them close out a fair share of close contests, like the one against MI where K Gowtham stepped up with his six-hitting prowess. But 2019 was quite a contrast, losing from winning situations, like the match against CSK where Mitch Santner did a Dhoni with a last-ball-six, and regularly throwing away the advantage from positions of strength.
What next then?
It seems certain that Steve Smith would return to the helm of affairs next year. Also a season with their English names being available for the entire campaign would be of help. Although Ben Stokes was an apparent misfit on Jaipur's slow dustbowls, and comes with a very heavy price tag, the passion the owners showed in his defence could have them retain him despite a couple of underwhelming seasons. An 'overpriced' Jaydev Unadkat could once again be axed, again with the hope of buying him back cheaper. But they'd do well to find themselves a good Indian death bowler. After all, there's only so much even Jofra Archer can do single-handedly.
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