Can Royals punch above their weight again?
Big PictureForever the underdogs, Rajasthan Royals is one team that has always looked like a team since the first season. They have always had big impact players and there is something in the leadership that brings out the best from them. A fairytale first season aside though, they have struggled to find consistency and have been consigned with the reputation of arguably being the best of the second-tier teams.
Unlike the men from Chandigarh, Pune and Hyderabad, they have never have had disastrous campaigns; the strong leadership may have changed hands from Shane Warne's flamboyance to Rahul Dravid's more methodical, process-driven management style, but it has kept the team cohesive and focused on cricket.
The team this year again comes in with a battery of overseas players who are experienced and effective in Twenty20s. They have men like Brad Hodge, Owais Shah, Shaun Tait and Brad Hogg who have, quite profitably for themselves, carved out a career playing the short format. Throw Shane Watson, Kusal Perera, Kevon Cooper, Fidel Edwards and James Faulkner into the mix, and the team starts appearing as a strong contender. However, with only four of these trumps available at a time, the team management will have to identify which card to pull out when.
Their fortunes, though, would depend on how the local group supports the imports. Rahul Dravid led with passion last year, but he hasn't played cricket since and this season could well be his last. Then there is Sreesanth, who will be eager to make an impact after sitting out during last year's IPL. However, it won't be a surprise if both are inconsistent. But one guy who is expected to fire straightaway is Ajinkya Rahane and the team would look forward to the kind of starts he generated last year.
What they have lacked is the stamina to maintain their intensity through the tournament. They have always had decent starts but they tend to lose steam when the race gets tighter towards the end. Take last season for example where they were in the running to qualify for knockout stage with two games to go, but they were tripped by Deccan Chargers, the poorest team in the competition. This year, with most players available from the first match and all games being played in Jaipur, Royals are in a position to give the tournament their best shot.
Key playersThe man of the tournament in the first edition, Shane Watson is among the few players who have stuck with one franchise and he hasn't fared badly at all. He has scored 1242 runs from 39 games and taken 35 wickets for Rajasthan and is in the same league as someone like Chris Gayle in dismantling any bowling attack. More importantly, this season he is available for the entire duration of the tournament, although he is likely to miss the first game. It is unclear as to why he is unavailable, but it is understood that he will be catching a flight over the next couple of days to join the team ahead of their second game against Kolkata Knight Riders on April 8. He had a tough time during the recent Tests in India and didn't bowl at all, but he had indicated earlier that he might start bowling during the IPL.
He may neither be a hard-hitting batsman nor a tearaway fast bowler, but allrounder Stuart Binny's role will be an important one among the second string locals in the team. He bowls gentle medium pace with a lot of variations in speed and is coming off a decent showing in domestic cricket, with 622 runs and 27 wickets off 11 matches this season. Royals would hope Binny brings the same value to their team as Rajat Bhatia does to Kolkata Knight Riders.
Big name inKusal Perera's recent run of scores (64, 56, 18*, 42, 336, 97, 203) is not the only exciting part about him, it is the manner in which he scores the runs that can set this tournament alight. The Sri Lankans have been calling him the next Sanath Jayasuriya and the similarity is not just limited to the whiplash square cut. Royals may have spent the most for James Faulkner ($400,000) but Perera, bought for a steal at $20,000, could well be the investment of the tournament.
Big name outThe departure of Johan Botha from Jaipur to Delhi has left Royals poorer in the spin department, but Botha's absence will be felt in the batting as well, as he was versatile enough to come up the order. He played 24 matches for Royals, in which he scored 335 runs and picked up 19 wickets.
Below the radarIt is not all just about his name; Kerala allrounder Sachin Baby recently flogged a 19-ball 48 against Delhi in the Syed Mustaq Ali Trophy (India's domestic T20 tournament) to pull off a tough chase. His T20 strike rate is over 150 and he can fill as an offspinner too. Left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh, who impressed Ian Chappell during last year's Under-19 World Cup, could also be in the spotlight.
AvailabilityRoyals are well-placed this year with all their players available throughout the season.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo