Back to cricket at Royals' fortress
Rajasthan Royals have been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last few months but the Champions League offers them a chance to bring the spotlight back to their cricket. The corruption scandal that came to the fore towards the end of this year's IPL took much of the gloss away from what had been an excellent season for the Rahul Dravid-led side. Royals were one of two teams this year to remain unbeaten at home and despite lacking in star value when compared to other IPL teams, players like Brad Hodge, Stuart Binny, James Faulkner, Kevon Cooper, Ajinkya Rahane and the captain himself made their performances count.
Royals have always been a personality driven team. From the days of Shane Warne to the current arrangement under a vocal version of Dravid, the team's captain has remained the most visible part of it on the field. And understandably so - the biggest domestic player in the team Rahane is an introvert, so someone has to compensate to keep the young team buoyant.
It will be the last time Dravid will be seen on the cricket field and after the sadness that came with the realisation he was sailing a ship with numerous holes, he would be looking forward to a good sign-off. Despite the heavy losses the team has incurred in terms of personnel, it still remains an efficient battery, with a cannon the size of Shane Watson. What's more, they are playing all their league matches at their fortress.
This IPL season, Shane Watson was intimidating with the bat, top-scoring for the team with 543 runs at a strike rate of 142.89, the highlight not being his century, but his 34-ball assault on Chennai Super Kings' bowlers in seaming conditions. He also picked up 13 wickets, bowling for the first time after a gap of a few months. In the absence of Siddharth Trivedi he would assume a bigger role in the team's bowling plans. Batting-wise, he is always a threat at this level, and his recent century against England will be a major boost to the team.
Then there is Brad Hodge, the second-highest run-scorer in T20 cricket behind Chris Gayle, who brings that 196-match experience to lend stability to the batting line-up in the lower half. Add Rahane, the silent accumulator at the top, to the list and the batting has a sense of depth to it. The bowling will be led by Faulkner, who was second in the list of leading wicket-takers in IPL 6.
Ashok Menaria featured in only one game in the IPL earlier this year, but he has struck rich form ahead of the tournament. Playing against New Zealand A, he picked up 10 wickets in three matches with his left-arm spin and scored a match-winning half-century as well. Along with Stuart Binny, he could form the backbone of the middle order.
In the IPL this year, Royals enjoyed the extra pace and bounce afforded by the Jaipur pitch and they will get the same home advantage in the Champions League. However, the teams they are going to play against include Perth Scorchers, Otago Volts and Lions, who would also prefer those conditions. In such a scenario, the absence of a quality spinner could hurt Royals. Pravin Tambe is the lone specialist spinner, but at 42 and with no first-class experience, his inclusion would always be a gamble.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo