Experts see promise in Rajasthan's squad for IPL 2019
Ajit Agarkar and Brad Hodge discuss Rajasthan's chances at the upcoming Indian T20 League
Where they finished in 2018
Fourth in the group stage with seven wins, before losing the eliminator to Kolkata Knight Riders.
Royals have great depth, and have addressed each of their problems from last year with precision, so they don't get exposed even when their big players aren't available.
Sample this: When Jos Buttler leaves, they can fill the void by playing Manan Vohra at the top. If Shreyas Gopal, the legspinner, has a string of poor games, they can back him up with Kerala's S Midhun. If they want experience, they can look at Ish Sodhi. Who better than Shane Warne as a mentor?
Royals' overseas roster has been strengthened with the additions of West Indies' Oshane Thomas and Australia's Ashton Turner, both of whom have left their imprints on Indian soil during ODI series in recent months. The fourth overseas slot is likely to be a toss-up between those two and Jofra Archer, depending on conditions and form. Varun Aaron and Jaydev Unadkat are the two experienced Indian quicks in the squad, with Thomas available as an alternative. Because they have a solid Indian back-ups for the overseas players, they shouldn't be hampered too much with team balance.
However, they need strategic precision. Last year, they weren't able to maximise Buttler's utility. In seven innings lower down the order, he managed just 120 runs at a strike rate of 126.30. When they decided to open with him, Royals had already slumped midway. But he almost single-handedly steered them to the playoffs by making 428 runs in the next six innings at a strike rate of 165.9. In the month of May alone, he tallied more runs (389) than the rest of the Royals batting combined (387).
Similarly, K Gowtham's record as a six-hitter was next to none, but he faced a total of 64 balls last season over 13 innings (four not outs in there), very low for someone who can strike a mean ball. He scored at over 200 at the death across innings. Is there a case to have him bat higher, especially in tall chases, so that they don't leave it too late?
It's no secret that Ajinkya Rahane is still eyeing a late entry to India's World Cup squad, and there are mixed signals from the selectors and the captain over IPL performances. In any case, for him to present his case, he has to open. But won't that come in the way of team goals?
As such, Rahane is best used as a floater, an option the team management should consider. His Powerplay strike rate last season was 127, the fifth-lowest among those who faced 50 balls or more. His middle-overs strike rate of 102.5 was the worst among all batsmen who faced a minimum of 50 balls. Now, Rahane may not buy into the theory that his strike rates come in the way of a middle-order berth with the Indian team, but these are cold numbers that tell a story.
Rahane's 370 runs last season - at a Smart Strike Rate of 101 - was the antithesis of how T20 cricket has evolved. There's no doubting his class and ability. He's used the downtime to train and prepare. Can he return a rejuvenated T20 batsman? It's important for the team management to make bold calls for the greater good if some combinations aren't working, something they didn't do enough last season.
The England players - Buttler and Ben Stokes, and possibly Jofra Archer, who is now eligible to play for England and is in the frame for selection - will leave on May 1 for their World Cup camp. Steven Smith is available for selection till, while Turner, who mentor Warne expects to tussle for the allrounder's spot, will be available from April 1 following Australia's ODI series in Pakistan in UAE. They could both leave on May 1 if they're part of Australia's World Cup plans. Six of their eight overseas players are likely to leave on May 1, so the pressure is on them to do all the running in their first 10 games. It remains to be seen how this pressure will impact them.
The best XI
1 Ajinkya Rahane (capt), 2 Jos Buttler, 3 Steven Smith, 4 Sanju Samson, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Stuart Binny 7 K Gowtham, 8 Shreyas Gopal, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Jaydev Unadkat, 11 Varun Aaron
The overseas question
Their best four foreign choices for most parts should be Buttler, Smith, Stokes and one of Archer and Turner, depending on their bowling combinations. Once the Englishmen go back, they could look at Smith, Turner, Livingstone and Thomas.
Will they make the playoffs?
Much like in season one, where not many gave them a chance, they are in with a great chance of springing a surprise. Even if a top-two finish may seem far-fetched, they will definitely be in the running for third or fourth.