Four days can be a long time in franchise cricket. The Delhi Capitals came away with a convincing 46-run victory over the Rajasthan Royals on October 9, which was then the fourth successive defeat for Steven Smith's men in the league.
The road has been a little uphill for the Capitals since. They lost Rishabh Pant to a hamstring injury, and swapping Alex Carey for him as wicketkeeper meant they had to rest Shimron Hetmyer just as he was hitting his straps in the middle order. Following an insipid performance against fellow pace-setters Mumbai Indians on Sunday, the experienced Ishant Sharma has also been ruled out of the tournament with an abdominal muscle tear. Form and team balance are both delicate matters in a fast-paced league where teams have very little time to recalibrate their plans, and the Capitals know that despite having bagged five wins in their first seven games, the margin of error is very small with many teams behind them on the points table beginning to look a lot more settled in recent times.
The same day that the Capitals slipped up against the Mumbai Indians, the Royals were hauled back from the brink against the Sunrisers Hyderabad by Riyan Parag and, again, Rahul Tewatia. Their five-wicket win was entertaining, and perhaps didn't warrant as much drama as it did, because their bowlers had put in a disciplined performance to restrict the Sunrisers to 158. If their batting fires as a unit, the Royals could still emerge as one of the dark horses at the back end of the league stages.
In the news
Marcus Stoinis has emerged as a key player for the Capitals, and Pant's absence probably adds greater value to his wicket in the middle order. In terms of numbers, Stoinis has had more prolific IPL seasons than the current one, but his 175 runs have come at an excellent strike rate of 175 this time, together with an average of 35, and that makes his ability to pick up the pace in the middle and late overs vital for the Capitals. His six wickets with the ball have just been a bonus.
Tewatia is now doing enough on a regular basis to be considered a key player in the Royals set up. He has contributed with both bat and ball to all of the wins that the Royals have had - 3 for 33 against the Chennai Super Kings, 53 off 31 against the Kings XI Punjab, and 45* off 28 against the Sunrisers. With the pitches beginning to show signs of wear, his bowling can become more central to Smith's plans, with the clever variations of pace and line making him a difficult bowler to take on for rival batsmen.
When they last met
Some disciplined lines by the Royals bowlers, and an electric bit of fielding by Yashasvi Jaiswal left the Capitals at a precarious 50 for 3 after the powerplay. The middle overs were powered by Stoinis (39) and Hetmyer (45), before Harshal Patel and Axar Patel took Delhi to 184 for 8. In reply, the Royals never really took off once Jos Buttler fell early, and Jaiswal's inability to force the pace saw him finish with 34 off 36. All six bowlers used by Shreyas Iyer chipped in with wickets, with Kagiso Rabada (3 for 35) and R Ashwin (2 for 22) the standout performers.
Delhi Capitals: 1 Prithvi Shaw, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Ajinkya Rahane, 4 Shreyas Iyer (capt), 5 Marcus Stoinis, 6 Alex Carey (wk), 7 Harshal Patel, 8 Axar Patel, 9 R Ashwin, 10 Kagiso Rabada 11 Anrich Nortje
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Jos Buttler (wk), 2 Ben Stokes, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Sanju Samson, 5 Robin Uthappa/Yashasvi Jaiswal, 6 Riyan Parag, 7 Rahul Tewatia, 8 Jofra Archer, 9 Shreyas Gopal, 10 Kartik Tyagi, 11 Jaydev Unadkat
With spin beginning to play a bigger role in the tournament, and the Royals' top three likely to be made up of three overseas players, the Capitals management might be tempted to bring in wristspinner Sandeep Lamichhane. While this would help add heft to the spin department, with both Patel and R Ashwin in good form, it could also mean having to drop one of Stoinis or Anrich Nortje, who have both been vital to the team's performance in the first seven games. With no clear replacement for Carey and Rabada as the other foreign players, that would be a big call to take.
Shreyas Gopal has an outstanding record against most of the batsmen in the Capitals' top order. He has dismissed Prithvi Shaw both the times they have faced off, with Shaw scoring at just 7 against him. Iyer averages 8.5, with two dismissals in four innings, and the legspinner has also picked up the wickets of Dhawan, Rahane and Stoinis in past encounters. Expect Smith to attack the Capitals with spin early, possibly even in the first over.
Stats that matter
In 21 matches between these teams, the Royals hold a narrow 11-10 lead in terms of wins, but haven't beaten the Capitals since a 10 run-win (DLS method) in Jaipur on April 11, 2018.
At the halfway stage, these two teams represent the best and worst bowling units of the eight teams in terms of wickets taken, average and economy. The Capitals have 51 wickets at an average of 21.6 and an economy of 7.9, while the corresponding numbers for the Royals are 32, 40.3 and 9.3.
The Royals average just 13.42 for the first wicket this IPL, with the top partnership in the first seven matches being a meagre 27. Buttler could hold the key to them reversing this trend against a team that he likes facing - his fastest T20 fifty came against them off 18 balls in 2018.
Dhawan needs five runs to bring up 7500 runs in T20 cricket.
Rabada needs two wickets to bring up 50 wickets in the IPL.
Smith, who would be playing his 200th T20 match, needs 79 runs to reach 1000 IPL runs for the Royals.