The slump of two of the top three sides has caused a stir in the race for the Playoffs. Suddenly, there is more than one Playoff spot open with a possible scenario where one of Bangalore and Delhi can be out. This has provided more than one team placed in the bottom half in the first half of the tournament a realistic chance to get themselves into the Top-4.
Two such teams - Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals - will be contesting in Match 50 of the ongoing IPL season. The last time these two met, in Match 9, it arguably turned out to be the game of the tournament. This time the tables have turned.
RR defeated Mumbai in a crushing manner in their last game but still find their chances hanging by a thread. Wins in both their remaining games might not be good enough for them to make it to the Playoffs. KXIP, on the other hand, are on an unprecedented run. Winning five games in a row, they have risen from the last spot in the points table to the fourth.
What has changed since their last battle?
It has been more than a month since the two sides last turned up against each other. RR recorded the highest ever run-chase, chasing 224 in Sharjah. The dynamics of the tournament has changed upside down since then.
It was one of the first few games which brought KXIP’s death-over problems with the ball into the limelight. In their first seven games, KXIP went at 13.3 runs per over at the death. In their last five games, they have pulled it back to 8.5 runs per over. With the pitches slowing down, Chris Jordan has impressed with variations in pace. KXIP have also refrained from using him in the Powerplay, thus allowing Jordan to do his thing which is strangling the batsmen in the latter half of the innings.
Mohammed Shami is arguably enjoying his best season with the ball. Arshdeep Singh has stepped up and the spin duo of Ravi Bishnoi and Murugan Ashwin have emerged as the best spin duo of the season. RR will be facing a different KXIP unit which is imbued with confidence.
The Caribbean force in the middle-order
One of the biggest factors in KXIP’s rise from the bottom of the table has been Chris Gayle’s presence in the middle-order. With Nicholas Pooran at four, he has put life into KXIP’s middle-order despite Glenn Maxwell still trying to find his feet.
Consequently, KXIP have the highest run-rate in what is considered to be the slowest batting phase in a T20 innings - overs seven to 12.
The above stat is critical for RR with the context of the match. Their last two victories circled around the legspinners - Shreyas Gopal and Rahul Tewatia - bowling economically after the field restrictions were lifted. Against KXIP, they will have to look for other options.
Both Gayle and Pooran, being aggressive left-handers, have relished facing legspinners. In T20s since 2019, Gayle has struck legspinners at a strike-rate of 181.6 (average 31.6) while Pooran has treated them at 179.5, averaging 99.3. Not to forget, Gayle took the game away from Kolkata in the blink of an eye as he was served with spinners first up.
Thus, RR need a new plan to tackle Gayle and Pooran. There is no better option than Jofra Archer. However, RR have always used half his quota in the Powerplay and the remaining two overs at the death. The bottomline is, RR will need to revamp their bowling plans completely to get at the KXIP batting line-up.
Fast bowling conundrum
RR’s pacers have leaked runs at 9.3 per over, easily the worst in the tournament. That is when Archer has gone at only 6.7 per over. Kartik Tyagi has shown some fire but no-one has grabbed the third seamer’s slot. Jaydev Unadkat and Ankit Rajpoot have played seven and six games respectively and maybe it is time to give another go to Varun Aaron.
RR need to fight fire with fire
Chasing 196 against a comprehensive bowling-unit like Mumbai without requiring the batting expertise of Jos Buttler was a massive boost to RR. Ben Stokes vindicated his promotion to open and Sanju Samson is amongst the runs again after a slump in the middle. Samson has scored 90 runs in the last two games, being dismissed only once.
The way the match-ups are drawn (as mentioned above), the RR batsmen will have to repeat that performance to fight KXIP’s strongest suit - batting - with their batting.
Each of the last five night games at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium have seen the chasing side win with relative ease. We are in the phase of the tournament where the captains have preferred to bowl first. Given the stats at the venue, the trend is expected to continue.
Kings XI Punjab:
The only possible change in KXIP’s squad rests on Mayank Agarwal’s fitness. Deepak Hooda will make way for him with Mandeep Singh going down to number six, owing to his versatility.
KL Rahul (c & wk), Mandeep Singh, Chris Gayle, Nicholas Pooran, Glenn Maxwell, Deepak Hooda/Mayank Agarwal, Chris Jordan, Ravi Bishnoi, Mohammed Shami, Murugan Ashwin, Arshdeep Singh
RR won’t want to tinker with the side which defeated Mumbai on Sunday. However, they need a third seamer and Varun Aaron might get a go.
Ben Stokes, Robin Uthappa, Steve Smith (c), Sanju Samson (wk), Jos Buttler, Riyan Parag, Rahul Tewatia, Jofra Archer, Shreyas Gopal, Kartik Tyagi, Ankit Rajpoot/Varun Aaron