If you are not Mumbai Indians then beating Chennai has been the toughest challenge in the IPL. The task gets tougher when your best opener and the first-choice all-rounder are unavailable. Yet, the Rajasthan Royals managed to beat CSK by 16 runs - a win that might look close but was a genuine thumping.
Kings XI Punjab got over the heartbreak of their first game with a victory over Bangalore that does not need any proof of being a thumping. Winning by 97 runs, Punjab deflated RCB tactically outside the field and with performance inside it.
After a confidence-boosting win in their respective last matches, KXIP and RR are set to clash in a contest of two historic underperformers. Despite the one-sided results in their last game, both teams have a few boxes to tick.
Punjab’s One-Man Show
Two one-man shows with the bat for Punjab have produced contrasting results so far. In their opening encounter against Delhi, a courageous counter-attack from Mayank Agarwal brought them to the brink of an unlikely victory. It came after all the ‘big shows’ around him faltered. Had Agarwal nudged a single in addition to the 89 runs he scored, his innings would have been among the ones to remember years later.
Next came the turn of their captain. With strokes ranging from clearing the cover boundary with just a touch to a scoop off the pacers, KL Rahul is becoming India’s most complete T20 batsman. The quality of his shots, the balance at the time of contact, the penchant for playing big innings is turning him into a giant of the shortest format of the game. With an innings of 132*- the highest by an Indian in IPL – he helped his side to a 206-run total. In the end, it proved to be a handful. The RCB batsmen imploded and could not even touch Rahul’s individual score.
In 2018, when he set the IPL stage alight, Rahul scored at a ferocious strike-rate of 164.2 in the first 10 balls. Since 2019, there is a shift in Rahul’s approach to the innings where he starts with caution and had a strike-rate of 96.8 in the last season. In the last game as well he was conservative to start with and completed his half-century in 36 balls, before adding 82 in the next 33.
The reason for this change in approach is obvious. The KXIP batting line-up following him does not inspire much confidence. There is a dearth of Indian batsmen and being responsible is not an attribute that Glenn Maxwell is famous for. Knowing the ability and style of batsmen to follow, Rahul knows the value of his wicket. However, overdependence on the opening pair and on Rahul, in particular, who is also the wicketkeeper and the captain, is unsustainable in the long run.
Coming to the match at hand, KXIP can look to swap Maxwell with Chris Gayle. On the shorter boundaries at Sharjah, against a team devoid of any off-spinners, Gayle can reduce Rahul’s burden. While Mayank can be effective in the middle-overs as he did in their first match.
On the bowling front, in the first game, they offered Delhi a chance to come back after reducing them to 6/96. Against RCB, there was no such release. Mohammed Shami continued his progress as a cricketer. Generating pace off a length he was unplayable yet again. Sheldon Cottrell got wickets upfront, including that of Virat Kohli.
The most delicious aspect of their attack was the tactical brilliance of playing two leg-spinners to counter the world-class RCB trio of right-handed batsmen. In the end, that strategy worked as both Ravi Bishnoi and Murugan Ashwin scalped three wickets each as RCB crumbled in 17 overs. It will be a surprise if KXIP alter their bowling attack against a right-hand heavy RR.
Ghosts From Rajasthan’s Past
Barring last four overs with the ball, their encounter against CSK was a perfect game for them. With Jos Buttler unavailable for the first match, Steve Smith opened the innings and anchored it with a 69-run knock.
The destroyer-in-chief from their perspective was Sanju Samson, who caressed a 32-ball 74. While he hit nine sixes, never once did he look like muscling the ball to enable it to cross the fence. Severe on spin, he scored 27 runs in seven balls against Piyush Chawla who was clueless against the assault.
However, there are two things that Samson should be wary of. In each of the last two seasons, he played a big innings within the first three matches that made his admirers hungry for more. But, they were left waiting for the rest of the season.
Moreover, while CSK spinners in Chawla and Ravindra Jadeja lacked drift in the air and thus were one-dimensional, the same is not true for the leggies from KXIP. In just two matches, Bishnoi has highlighted his comfort with varying his pace or delivering googlies at will. M Ashwin too imparts more revs to the ball than Chawla. Thus, tasked with proving his consistency, Samson should be prepared to play the situation as well.
With Buttler likely to be back for the second game, RR have a solid top-order. However, it will be interesting to see where Smith bats. It would be a shame if they tamper with Yashasvi Jaiswal’s batting order after just one game. But going by their use of Rahul Tripathi in the past, we cannot rule anything out.
Coming to the bowling front, Jofra Archer was at his best against CSK and his contest against Rahul will be one to watch out for. Multiple leg-spin options in the middle-overs will also make that phase more difficult for KXIP then it was against RCB.
However, with an economy rate of 10.38 at the death in the last two seasons, RR have not been one of the better finishers with the ball. In the game against CSK, while the opposition were down and out with 79 runs needed in the last four overs, they still managed to score 62 of those.
We can put that down to the fearlessness in CSK batsmen who relieved pressure having accepted defeat. However, it was apparent from the body language of Jaydev Unadkat and Tom Curran that they had no answers to the blitzkrieg despite trying everything. If RR are to hope of finishing in the top-four, they need to solve their death bowling muddle.
Having said that, as he did while leading Pune in 2017 and RR in the second half of 2019, we can expect Smith to not let his team be a pushover.
KXIP – KL Rahul (c&wk), Chris Gayle, Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair, Nicholas Pooran, Sarfaraz Khan, James Neesham, Ravi Bishnoi, Murugan Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Sheldon Cottrell
RR – Jos Buttler (wk), Yashasvi Jaiswal, Sanju Samson, Steve Smith ©, Robin Uthappa, Riyan Parag, Rahul Tewatia, Tom Curran, Jofra Archer, Shreyas Gopal, Jaydev Undakat