Rajasthan Royals 186 for 3 (Stokes 50, Samson 48) beat Kings XI Punjab 185 for 4 (Gayle 99, Rahul 46, Archer 2-26, Stokes 2-32) by seven wickets
A breath-taking half-century from Ben Stokes and a perfectly-paced 48 from Sanju Samson trumped a belligerent 99 from Chris Gayle to keep the Rajasthan Royals alive in the playoff race with a seven-wicket win over Kings XI Punjab in Abu Dhabi, where KL Rahul's team is yet to win a match. The Royals' chase of 186 was set up in the powerplay itself by Stokes' 26-ball 50, and even though he fell in the sixth over, Samson's classy 25-ball innings and some enterprising batting from Steven Smith and Jos Buttler against a dew-wet ball took the Royals to 12 points - level with the Kings XI and the Kolkata Knight Riders - and helped them jump from seventh to fifth place.
Samson and Stokes carried forward their form from the win against the Mumbai Indians; Stokes' handsome pulls and unorthodox reverse sweeps helped him collect six fours and three sixes for a strike rate of 192.30, and Samson's well-timed strokes against both pace and spin brought down the Royals' asking rate dramatically to just seven by the 14th over. Samson took the baton after Stokes' dismissal and reduced the equation to just 41 from 34 balls by the time he fell, which made it fairly easy for Smith and Buttler to seal the Royals' fifth win while chasing.
A Royal performance by the top order
Right from the first over, the Royals' batsmen took on each one of the Kings XI bowlers. If it was Stokes who went after M Ashwin in the powerplay for 16 runs, aided by two sixes, later it was Robin Uthappa and Samson who kept finding boundaries against Ashwin, Ravi Bishnoi and Arshdeep Singh.
Openers Uthappa and Stokes attacked Mohammed Shami and Singh early on, which meant that as soon as Stokes found mid-off in the sixth over off Chris Jordan, the Kings XI brought legspin on from both ends against two right-hand batsmen. Barring an expensive ninth over from Singh for 14 runs, Ashwin and Bishnoi bowled six overs on the trot, and Uthappa and Samson milked them for 52 runs. Uthappa relied on singles to give Samson the strike, and the younger man aited until the tenth over to tear into the bowlers. When he saw flight, he lofted it straight back, and when he saw the length even marginally short, he cut and pulled to propel his strike rate to nearly 200 at one point.
Uthappa holed out off Ashwin for 30 while attempting a second straight six, and Samson was run-out while attempting an unnecessary single in the 15th over, but their fifty partnership had done enough for the middle order.
Gayle gets two lives, and makes the most of them
On two occasions, Gayle's attempted boundaries gave the Royals chances to send him back and both times he survived. The first time, when he was on 4, Gayle skied the ball really high towards deep square-leg, where Riyan Parag also saw Robin Uthappa running towards him from the 30-yard circle and grassed a catch he should have taken. The second time, with Gayle on 50, the ball was lofted towards mid-on where Stokes ran in from the deep, but Rahul Tewatia, the bowler, went for the catch but couldn't reach it.
KL Rahul was playing second-fiddle at the other end as he tried to up the rate but couldn't time the ball as well as he normally does during his 41-ball 46. Gayle was almost batting in a different game. The duo saw off the dangerous Jofra Archer's two-over first spell, which accounted for Mandeep Singh with a nasty short ball, so that they could take on a wayward Varun Aaron, who came in place of Ankit Rajpoot, and make use of Kartik Tyagi's pace. Tyagi's approach of bowling yorkers also did not work as Gayle made room to either find boundaries or dispatch the low full tosses into the stands.
After the trio of fast bowlers couldn't get rid of Gayle in the powerplay, the Royals had to turn to their legspinners whom Gayle didn't spare either.
Stokes and Archer keep things tight
When speeds slower than Archer's was being hit for runs, Stokes figured it was better to take the pace off the ball. He sent down knuckle balls, cutters and slower ones under 130kph, which were much tougher to hit for boundaries. One of those accounted for Rahul in the 15th over, but Nicholas Pooran and Gayle then went after Aaron and Tyagi again in the end.
With two overs left, Gayle was on 84 and he stormed into the 90s with his 1000th T20 six before launching Archer over long-on to reach 99. But Archer, from around the wicket, followed it with a near-yorker that deflected off Gayle's pads and cannoned into the stumps. An emotional Gayle lost his bat when he tried to hit it into the ground in frustration and then walked off after shaking Archer's hand with his helmet perched on his bat.
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo