Royals have a problem named Steve Smith

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15 Apr 2019 | 02:45 PM
authorPrem Panicker

Royals have a problem named Steve Smith

Ashton Turner a viable option in game against KXIP

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When KXIP hosts Rajasthan Royals at Mohali on April 16 in the 32nd match of the 2019 IPL season there is one bet you can safely make: Royals opener Jos Buttler will have his bat firmly grounded behind the crease when he is at the non-striker’s end.

 

23 days earlier, in the 4th game of the season when the two met in match 4 at Jaipur, KXIP captain Ravi Ashwin loaded up for the fifth ball of his final over and the 13th of the chase.

 

He had noticed that Buttler was leaving the crease well before the delivery; this time, he paused during the load-up, and ran the non-striker out, leading to considerable noise about the “spirit of cricket” which, oddly, seems to frown on a bowler following the rules but not on a batsman taking an unfair advantage.

 

The chatter was a by-product – what that dismissal accomplished in material terms was a total turnaround in fortunes. The Royals, chasing Punjab’s 184/4 on the back of Chris Gayle’s 79 off 47 and Sarfaraz Khan’s buccaneering 48 off 29, were coasting at 64/0 at the end of the powerplays and 108/1 after 12.4 overs, with Buttler going strong on 69 off 43 when he was ‘mankaded’. The Royals then lost 8 wickets for just 56 runs across the next 39 balls to crash to a disastrous defeat.

 

It was the first game of the season for both sides. KXIP now has four wins and four losses in eight played and is fifth on the table; against that, Royals has never really recovered and comes into this game with two wins and five losses for a total of four points, putting them just above bottom-placed RCB and with little hope of making the playoffs.

 

What makes the Royals’ task harder is that Mohali – a wicket with pace, lift, carry and assistance for spinners, is something of a fortress for KXIP who have won three of the four games they have hosted thus far, losing only to – of all teams – RCB to give the wooden-spooners their lone win in seven tries.

 

KXIP’s qualification hopes hinge on winning this one and bumping up their currently negative NRR in the process – their last two games at home are against table-toppers KKR and CSK, two teams well equipped to cope with the conditions at Mohali.

 

Ground Realities:

 


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Mohali is a “true” pitch – even bounce, decent pace off the wicket without the tendency to ‘stick’, purchase and turn for spinners; the boundaries are among the longer ones in India.

 

Four matches have been played here so far this season and the first innings scores have been 176/7 (MI), 166/9 (KXIP), 150/4 (SRH) and 173/4 (KXIP). The SRH score was aberrant – in that innings Jonny Bairstow got out cheap; David Warner was uncharacteristically slow (70/62) and other than a late kick by Deepak Hooda (14 runs in 3 balls at the fag end), no batsman capitalized; there were just two sixes in the entire SRH innings, one each to Warner and Hooda.

The inference would be that 170 is par – but that is to misread results. KXIP chased down 176 against a strong MI bowling attack with 8 balls and 8 wickets to spare; RCB similarly chased down 173 with eight wickets and four balls in hand. Put it all together and you want to up the par to between 180-185 batting first. Keep in mind that Mohali is a ground that does not vary much, in terms of dew, pitch and atmospherics, from the first innings to the second.

 

Contours of the Contest:

 

Examine the performance of the two teams this season and some dissimilarities show up. For instance:

 

KXIP batsmen have the best strike rate of 138 in the middle overs (7-15). Against that, the Royals strike at 129. 

These numbers are underlined by the fact that Punjab has the second highest boundary (Delhi 17.59) percentage of all teams in the middle overs: 16.43 percent of their runs in overs 7-15 come from boundaries. Against that, Royals score about 13.12 per cent in boundaries during the same phase.


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On tracks where par is in excess of 160-170, you need to go big at the top to set it up for the middle; clearly, KXIP is far better placed in this regard than RR, despite the latter having Jos Buttler at number 2.

 

The Steve Smith Conundrum

 

Team balance is going to be key. Though Nicholas Pooran played for Punjab in the away game against the Royals, he was underwhelming in the finisher’s role, and David Miller is the more logical option. It is the Royals who have a contentious issue to deal with, and his name is Steve Smith.

 

The former Aussie captain is clearly not fully recovered from injury, nor has he found even a semblance of the touch and timing that, at his best, allowed him to accelerate at will. His batting is currently one-note: he hits everything towards leg, often fetching from well outside off, and has struggled to go at anything over 120-125 strike rate.

 

That is to say, Royals have two batsmen – Rahane and Smith – in the top four who are identical in how they build their innings; this puts an inordinate pressure on the finishers to produce explosive bursts in the last five, and the lineup as it stands does not have anyone capable of doing that. Ben Stokes is the designated big-hitter for the back end of the innings but the English all-rounder’s form has been pedestrian. There is a logical solution: Switch Smith out and bring in Ashton Turner – but that kind of call takes considerable courage from the captain and coach, and neither Rahane nor Paddy Upton have the chops to be able to tell Smith to sit one out.

 

Strike Force

 

This preview is weighted in favour of batting stats because in Mohali, it is batting that will win you games more often than not. But there are interesting aspects to the bowling of the two sides that will impact on the results. The first, and likely the key indicator, is the ability to strike during the powerplays, because on a batting track that is the only logical way to slow the batting side down.

 

Here, the Royals are clearly ahead: the visitors strike at a wicket every 36 balls going at 7.64 versus Punjab, which takes 41.2 balls per wicket at 8.69 in the Powerplay.

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Three of four games at Mohali this season have been won by the team chasing – not because conditions favor chasing sides, but because the side batting first has not been able to put up par-plus scores. The one exception was when Punjab batted first against Delhi – and in that game, Delhi was in total control of the chase, needing 23 to win in 21 balls with seven wickets in hand when the most spectacular collective brain fade in living memory (helped along by a once in a lifetime performance by Sam Curran) saw the chasing side lose seven wickets for eight runs, Curran taking four for in an eight-ball sequence.

 

Probable XIs:

 

KXIP: KL Rahul, Chris Gayle, Mayank Agarwal, Sarfaraz Khan, David Miller, Mandeep Singh, Sam Curran, Ravichandran Ashwin, Murugan Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Ankit Rajpoot

 

Rajasthan Royals: Ajinkya Rahane, Jos Buttler, Sanju Samson, Steve Smith, Ben Stokes, Rahul Tripathi, Shreyas Gopal, Krishnappa Gowtham, Jofra Archer, Jaydev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni

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