What has clicked for Kolkata Knight Riders this season? Their retained, upcoming batter Venkatesh Iyer? Nope. What about the million-dollar buy Pat Cummins, and the mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy, who too was not let go? Well, both have been dropped. So has Ajinkya Rahane, as Knight Riders have tried five different opening pairs - and four in their last four games - including shunting Venkatesh from the top to the middle and then back up.
Amidst all this, Andre Russell has become undroppable despite blowing hot and cold. In a nutshell, three of their four retained picks have underperformed. Captain Shreyas Iyer and the experienced Umesh Yadav have been their side's driving forces, with Knight Riders missing an outstanding contributor. They started the season with three wins out of four, before tumbling off the cliff with five defeats in a row, the only side other than Mumbai Indians with the unwanted distinction this IPL.
At eighth in the points table, the only way for them is to climb up. Perhaps some inspiration from their remarkable turnaround last season will do, when they went from second-last in the table to being eventual runners-up.
Over to Rajasthan Royals now, who will be seeking some consistency from the likes of Shimron Hetmyer, some stability from their captain Sanju Samson and some solid contributions from opener Devdutt Padikkal. Their batting has been carried all along by Jos Buttler, who leads the tournament's run-making charts, while Yuzvendra Chahal sits atop the wicket-takers' list.
Royals have had quiet performers in R Ashwin, who has played pinch-hitter with the bat too, Prasidh Krishna and the rising Kuldeep Sen, whose performances should further get highlighted considering the bowlers have successfully defended totals six times, exactly the number of wins Royals have after nine matches.
But they still need to be wary: after all, they are yet to win a game while chasing; their flow of a hat-trick of wins was interrupted by a loss to Mumbai on Saturday; and they are second on the table only by virtue of better net run rate over Lucknow Super Giants. However, two points against Knight Riders, and they can feel a bit more secure with just four matches to play after that.
One of Buttler's three hundreds of the season has come against… well, Knight Riders. He cracked 103 off 60 balls, as Royals raked up 217 in a tense win. But if Knight Riders will have learned a lesson from that hammering, they wouldn't want to throw Umesh the new ball against Buttler again. The opener hit Umesh for 30 off 18 balls at the Brabourne Stadium that evening, including two fours and sixes each. That strike rate of 166.67 was in fact more than the overall figure of 164 that Buttler has against Umesh in T20s.
But never mind the problem, as Sunil Narine brings the solution - and not just against Buttler, but also against his partner Padikkal. Buttler has struggled to get going off Narine, managing just 29 runs from 27 balls with two dismissals. Bothering even Padikkal, Narine has got him once - including in the teams' last meeting - in eight balls, with Padikkal facing four dots out of those despite otherwise getting nine runs. So don't be surprised if Narine starts with the ball from one end.
Ashwin against what could potentially be Knight Riders' top six makes for interesting reading. While Venkatesh has been kept in check at a strike rate of 94 despite no dismissal, and Russell has been restricted to100 while falling twice to the offspinner, it is against the other four that Ashwin falls well short.
Narine has bashed Ashwin for 60 off 22 balls in the format with only one dismissal; Nitish Rana hasn't given his wicket away while scoring 76 off 38; Finch has hit Ashwin at a strike rate of 168 despite three wickets; Shreyas, although relatively going easier with 72 off 55, hasn't fallen to Ashwin either. Hence, Royals may keep Ashwin's overs for the later stages, especially if Venkatesh and Russell both play as finishers.
Stats that matter
Knight Riders' average opening stand this season has been 14.2, the second-lowest behind Chennai Super Kings' 12.6. They have had five opening pairs, the most this edition, with the next highest by any side being two.
Samson has fallen thrice to Narine, the second-most against a spinner in IPL. The one who has got him most times with five wickets is currently this season's highest wicket-taker and also Samson's team-mate.
Umesh's nine wickets at the Wankhede are the joint-most by a bowler at a ground this season. Kuldeep Yadav also has as many at the Brabourne.
Buttler's 566 runs so far are the most that a Royals batter has got in a single season. The previous highest was Rahane's 560 in 2012. Ironically, Rahane now happens to be in the opposition's dressing room.