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Rajasthan Royals : Season Review


Shane_Watson_IPL_Rajasthan_RoyalsRajasthan Royals : Season Review

Position: 4th (Lost the Eliminator)

Played 15, Won 7, Lost 6, NR 2.


RR’s season is perhaps the clearest illustration of the importance of form and momentum in the IPL. They began it winning five consecutive matches, including a thumping eight wicket victory against CSK; they then lost in a Super Over against KXIP, and then lost again before rain forced their eighth and ninth matches to be abandoned. They went from five out of five to five out of nine. Rain and defeat punctured their progress and they only managed to win two of their last ten matches, finishing with just seven all season having had five before the end of the third week. This was the second consecutive season in which RR began brightly before fading away, at least this season, unlike the last, they managed to sneak into the Play Offs, where they were comprehensively beaten by an RCB team deserving of victory.

There is however, more than just a loss of form and momentum to explain RR’s struggles, as the season wore on their squad was exposed as being imbalanced, short of batting power and expensive with the ball. While RR have often been a team to be more than the sum of their parts, this season those parts were being shown to be inadequate. Their season was further harmed by the inability of their three star overseas players, Shane Watson, Steve Smith and James Faulkner to deliver more than just one match-winning performance each. Admittedly there were areas for encouragement and RR are not a bad team but they face a careful and fragile rebuild in the off-season if they are to challenge for the top four again next year.

RR’s success was reliant on their best three players, Ajinkya Rahane, Watson and Smith who, batting at the top of the order scored more than 50% of their runs. In front-loading their batting, as RCB also did this season, they were following the templates set by CSK and KXIP last season. The problem with front-loading is that a weak middle-order is then more vulnerable to collapse without a high-quality player involved to offer support. Below Rahane, Watson and Smith RR’s middle-lower-order was composed of Karun Nair, Sanju Samson and Deepak Hooda, who played every match and Stuart Binny, who played all but one. While this is a middle-order suggestive quality and talent, it was one that let RR down. The four men scored 610 runs, at an average of just 17.94 and a strike-rate of 130. Samson, Nair and Hooda all played one excellent innings; Samson with a near-match-winning 76 against MI, Nair with vibrant 61 against DD, and Hooda, who started the season brilliantly, with a powerful 54 against DD.

And yet even if Samson, Nair and Binny had been in better form and been more prolific, RR would still have lacked firepower in the bottom half of their innings. All three of them are decent players but they aren't destroyers of bowling attacks. Of course, it would be too much to ask them to be Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell or MS Dhoni, but none of them are even in the mould of such a player. Hooda’s game, incidentally, is a little more aligned with the six-hitting, ball-striking power required in the final overs of an innings, but having only turned 20 during this season it would’ve been too much to ask of Hooda to act as RR’s lower-order power-hitter. As it was, they looked to Faulkner to play such innings. While Faulkner is arguably one of the most dangerous players in world cricket when he gets going, he remains, predominantly, a bowler. Someone like Russell, for example, has evolved into more of a batsman, but Faulkner hasn’t made that shift yet, and it’s unfair to expect him to do so. Quite simply RR need more Indian power in their middle-order.

Interestingly, the balance of their team was perhaps a little better when Watson was injured for the first four matches of the season. Watson’s absence allowed RR to pick Tim Southee and Chris Morris together, who later alternated for the fourth overseas spot. Southee and Morris playing in tandem strengthened RR’s bowling—at least on paper—and while it didn’t make up for the lack of power in the middle-order, it at least gave them more chance of defending a below-par score caused by a weak second half of an innings. Saying that, Watson is still one of the best all-rounders in the world, and although he may have slightly upset their balance, RR were a more formidable force with him playing.

While RR’s batting was at least bolstered by Rahane, Watson and Smith, their bowling was not so fortunate. Southee, who played seven matches, didn't bowl at his best, collecting just six wickets and conceding almost nine runs an over. Chris Morris, who played eleven matches, was the eventual leader of the attack, taking 13 wickets at an economy of under 7.5. Dhawal Kulkarni fared okay, also collecting 13 wickets but RR were simply not threatening enough; no team took fewer wickets in the league-stage than they did. While again, it is unfair to expect overseas players to make up for Indian shortcomings, Faulkner, who took three wickets in his first match but just five more after, and Watson were disappointing with the ball; both conceded more than nine runs per over on average. With Faulkner struggling for form RR’s inability to succeed at the death, no team had a worse final five overs economy rate, was perhaps the most significant short-coming of a patchy season.

Last season Pravin Tambe led RR’s spin attack, taking 15 wickets; this season he played ten matches before being dropped, having taken just seven wickets. RR are famed for their faith a Moneyball-style approach to auctions but their think tank failed to foresee or cover for the struggles of Tambe, who at 43 years of age may finally be yesterday’s man. Ankit Sharma was Tambe’s replacement in the team and he took just three wickets from his four overs. RR regularly shuffled their bowling attack in search for a successful combination but gave just one match to Juan Theron, Rahul Tewatia and Brainder Sran, while Rajat Bhatia played just twice. Some stability in selection would’ve given these players a greater chance of success.

RR deserve credit for their decision to change captains mid-season. Although it wasn’t a particularly unsettling move, given that Smith had already captained the team in the season, it was a pragmatic move and a good one.

RR have a fascinating and crucial off-season ahead of them. Similarly to SRH their batting suffered due to their Indian players poor form. Yet in contrast to most of SRH’s, RR’s Indians simply played badly as opposed to being fundamentally inept or out-of-their depth. Samson, Nair, Hooda and Binny are good players they just need to play better. RR should target a high quality and reliable Indian and international all-rounder or batsman to bolster that middle-order, someone like Angelo Matthews or Ben Stokes. They desperately need a six-hitter and until they find someone their top-order will be pressurised and their middle and lower order will be asked to play out of role. RR’s bowling needs a little more adjustment. Morris and Southee are good overseas bowlers but they need another former or current Indian international, Irfan Pathan, unwanted at CSK and who offers useful batting, springs to mind and would, if in form, give them the option of leaving out Faulkner to pick that new batsman if indeed he is non-Indian. Ishant Sharma, expensive, but a wicket-taker, is another bowling possibility. Their priority should be signing a lead spin bowler, and given the make-up of their team it’ll probably have to be an Indian. Someone like Piyush Chawla perhaps, or even Pragyan Ojha if he can rediscover his mojo.

RR are not a bad team, they are a decent team who didn’t play particularly well this season. But they do need to make refinements else they’ll endanger corrupting and confusing a promising crop of young players. Given the phlegmatic and considered approach of their management it’ll be a surprise if they begin next season weaker than they ended this.

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Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist @fwildecricket....

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