Smith the captain
Shane Watson has been handed the responsibility of leading Rajasthan Royals to IPL glory this time. But it was another World champion Australian that walked out for the toss. Steven Smith revealed soon that Watson had been ruled out due to a "bruised hip".
For more than a year now, Smith has hardly put a foot wrong on a cricket field all over the world. And he continued in the same vein on Friday. First, his free-flowing 33 off 23 gave the much-needed impetus to the Royals innings. And then while defending a target that wasn't out of reach by any means, Smith the captain displayed his acumen with his clever bowling changes.
Despite it being an away game for his team, Smith appeared to be at home. After all, he had played his first two seasons in the IPL with Pune Warriors. And it was at the same ground that he had made his captaincy debut in the IPL almost three years ago.
Royals buck the trend
More often than not, IPL teams tend to utilise most of their overseas players in the batting department. With Twenty20 being more about batting exploits, a majority of matches have seen franchises preferring three of their maximum four overseas players in the XI as batsmen. But Royals did something different.
Barring stand-in captain Smith, the overseas cricketers in their XI were bowlers. Of course the fact that James Faulkner is a genuine allrounder and Chris Morris is a useful bat helped their team selection. But the decision was indeed brave, and it paid rich dividends as all the three overseas bowlers played a huge role in restricting the fancied Kings XI Punjab batting line-up to a sub-140 total.
From being the low-cost team on the IPL circuit to a unit that has relied more on unknown domestic talent, Royals have set many trends in the first seven editions. Will this be a new trend for others to follow?
Kings XI pacers impress
So dominating was the Kings XI batting unit in IPL 2014 that their fast bowlers' efforts didn't really get the credit they deserved. Kings XI possess some of the best Indian seamers on their roster. And Sandeep Sharma and Anureet Singh justified their billing by giving their team a solid start in the opener. Sandeep did a Morne Morkel of the opening IPL night, bowling four economical and impressive overs on the trot upfront. Anureet, on the other hand, had a tougher task of bowling two overs at the start and as many at the death. Taking this into account, his figures of 3 for 23 outdid all other bowlers on the night.
Anureet even outshone Mitchell Johnson. Not that the Australian left-armer had a forgettable outing. Before suffering from Faulkner's onslaught, Johnson had the Royals batsmen dancing to his tunes. He had Stuart Binny all at sea in his opening over before dismissing him and claiming the big scalp of Smith within four balls in his next over.
Assault on Axar
Axar Patel was the find of the last season. He stifled the opposition batsmen so successfully during his maiden IPL season that he emerged as one of the most economical bowlers in the tournament's history. That paved the way for him to not just earn an India cap but also be included in the squad for the World Cup.
The Royals batsmen appeared to make a conscious effort to go after the left-arm spinner. The first ball Axar bowled, Smith charged down the wicket to flick it between mid-on and midwicket for a four. Next ball, Smith danced down again and hit him straight down the ground for a four. He missed out next ball but once he took a single, Karun Nair sent Axar over the ropes through cow corner. Though Axar foxed Karun with an arm ball, Royals continued to make a conscious assault. Axar was eventually taken for 34 off four overs.
That man Faulkner
Just like Smith, Faulkner cannot get anything wrong on the field at the moment, fitness permitting. He continued his World Cup form without any fuss to help Royals open their IPL campaign in style. Had it not been for his sterling 33-ball 46, Royals wouldn't have been able to post a 160-plus total. Walking in to bat with Royals in trouble at 75 for five in the 11th over, Faulkner changed the course of the game with partnerships of 51 and 34 with IPL debutant Deepak Hooda and Morris.
And then with the ball in his hands, Faulkner did wonders yet again. All his three dismissals were his Australia team-mates, which took the fizz out of the game and turned it into a lopsided affair. If Faulkner continues in the same vein, Royals may well have many more one-sided victories this year.