Too much tinkering topples Royals
Where they finished
Fifth, with seven wins from 14 matches.
What went right
As they so often do, Rajasthan Royals squeezed the most out of their uncapped Indian players. Pravin Tambe, Rajat Bhatia, Ankit Sharma, Rahul Tewatia were mostly economical with the ball, and Karun Nair was a revelation with the bat.
Royals' Australian finishers - Steven Smith, Brad Hodge and James Faulkner - all performed well when called upon, with Smith and Faulkner pulling off a spectacular heist against Royal Challengers Bangalore. All three finished with 30-plus averages and 130-plus strike rates, but it was not an unqualified success; Royals could have made much better use of them. It tells you something that all three players ended with highest scores in the 40s, and that two of them were not-outs.
What went wrong
Tactics, tactics, tactics. It started early in the season, with Royals choosing to open with Abhishek Nayar and persisting with a clearly out-of-form Stuart Binny at No. 5, ahead of Steven Smith and James Faulkner. These decisions did not attract too much opprobrium, however, since Royals were putting the results on the table.
In fact, after they beat Royal Challengers Bangalore on May 11, the table suggested they were in a pretty unassailable position as far as qualification was concerned. They were third, with a four-point cushion separating them from Kolkata Knight Riders in fourth, and had a healthy, positive net run rate of +0.250. They had five matches left, and two wins would seal the deal for them. Even one win might have been enough.
At that precise point, they chose to hand the responsibility of drawing up their tactics to the nine-year-old nephew of a member of their match-day catering staff. Or so their team management made it look, with every bizarre decision they made.
Against Chennai Super Kings, right after Karun Nair and Ajinkya Rahane had put on a brisk half-century stand against Royal Challengers, they chose to open with Ankit Sharma and Shane Watson. Against Mumbai Indians, chasing 179, they sent in Kevon Cooper, Stuart Binny and Ankit ahead of Brad Hodge (who had replaced Steven Smith out of the blue) and James Faulkner.
Against Kings XI Punjab, at a time when they knew the race for fourth was getting tight, they brought in Vikramjeet Malik for his first game of the season. And then, chasing 180, they sent in Binny and Rahul Tewatia ahead of Hodge and Faulkner.
They lost all three games, all fairly narrowly, but a win over the hapless Delhi Daredevils meant they were still favourites to go through ahead of their final game against Mumbai Indians. They did as well as they could with the bat in that game, but their bowlers went through a collective brain-freeze. It might not have come to this had they been consistent with their selections and played their best eleven, with everyone in their best position in the crunch games, leading up to the final day of the league phase.
Royals won five out of six games against the teams that finished below them. They also beat Kolkata Knight Riders twice, in two freakish matches - they won one of them on boundary count following a tied Super Over, and the other by 10 runs, after Knight Riders collapsed to lose six wickets for two runs - and these were Royals' only wins against teams that finished above them. They failed to win a single game against Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings or Kings XI Punjab.
In a productive tournament for quickish, accurate legspinners - Royal Challengers' Yuzvendra Chahal and Sunrisers' Karn Sharma enjoyed similar levels of success - Pravin Tambe was Royals' go-to bowler and a regular source of wickets in the middle overs. All his 15 wickets came in the 10-over period between the end of the Powerplay and the start of the 17th over - he was, in fact, the tournament's highest wicket-taker in that phase.
Tambe wasn't really expected to repeat his success from last year's Champions League, but he remained just as hard to hit, and just as capable of surprising batsmen and on occasion, even ran through teams. He finished with figures of 4 for 20 as Royals rolled Royal Challengers over for 70 in Abu Dhabi. And then, most memorably, he took a hat-trick against Knight Riders in Ahmedabad to stop what looked an odds-on chase of 171 in its tracks.
Stuart Binny can lay claim to this title, having been retained by Royals, having batted mostly at No. 5, usually ahead of Steven Smith, and for ending the tournament with an average of 12.30 and a strike rate of 101.65. But because more was expected from him, the honour will instead go to Royals' captain, Shane Watson.
Watson flickered only sporadically with the bat, and ended the season with an average of 20 and a strike rate of 122.44. He did not bowl all that often, and did not bowl particularly well when he had a go. It is probably unfair to pin the blame on him for Royals' tactical messes, considering their backroom staff probably played a bigger role in selection and batting-order decisions, but he often looked a confused leader on the field as well.
Watson's worst performance came in Royals' final game, when he opened the batting and scored 8 off 18 balls, gave away 33 runs in two overs - bowling short and wide with third man in the circle - and wore a blank look on his face as Brad Hodge took charge of the field placements.
Karun Nair had enjoyed a spectacular debut season in first-class cricket, in which he had scored three consecutive centuries to help Karnataka win the Ranji Trophy. Spectacular first-class seasons, however, do not always translate into IPL opportunities, and IPL opportunities often don't translate into instant success.
Nair, though, looked a natural right from the start, composed at the crease and full of scoring options. He did not have to deviate too much from orthodox cricket shots to score quickly, and used the square cut to particularly good effect against the spinners. He scored three half-centuries, including an ice-cool 27-ball 50 in the fourth-place decider against Mumbai Indians, and a 39-ball 56 that set up Royals' spectacular chase against Royal Challengers.
For 16 overs, Royal Challengers had dominated proceedings at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Yuvraj Singh had returned to form in spectacular fashion to propel them to 190, and he had demolished Royals' middle order, taking four wickets with his left-arm spin. And then, with 65 to get from the last four overs, Smith and Faulkner exploded to life. Faulkner smashed two fours and a six as Mitchell Starc went for 21 in the 17th over, and Smith took 14 off the first three balls of the next over, from Ashok Dinda. Royals were suddenly within sight. In the end, they didn't even need a 20th over, as Faulkner finished it off with a clinical assault on a helpless Varun Aaron, taking Royals home with seven balls to spare.
Amit Mishra, Ankush Bains, and Deepak Hooda.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo