Who would have imagined that Virat Kohli vs Steven Smith would become a bit of a no-contest at the halfway mark of IPL 2020? Kohli started slowly, but has found his rhythm, and is making a difference. Smith, in comparison, has gone off the boil after a promising start, when he hit two half-centuries in winning causes. There's more to the contest, of course: the Royal Challengers Bangalore are well-placed with five wins from eight games, and the Rajasthan Royals are struggling with three wins from eight games.
The Royal Challengers are at the end of a hectic week. By Saturday, they would have played four games in eight days. Their previous outing - against the Kings XI Punjab - made headlines for their tactical mix-ups: the Royal Challengers sent in two left-handers - Washington Sundar and Shivam Dube - ahead of the in-form AB de Villiers to combat two legspinners on a slow surface. Kohli agreed the execution was off.
Now, data goes beyond conventional logic. It shows de Villiers may have gotten out to a legspinner, as he has against bowlers of other varieties, but that is no reason to hold him back. If it was M Ashwin and Ravi Bishnoi on Thursday, he will have Shreyas Gopal and Rahul Tewatia, or maybe even Mayank Markande, coming at him on Saturday. Since the start of 2019, de Villiers has averaged 52.5 against legspin while striking at 135.77. That alone is enough reason to ensure he gets enough time to set himself up, whether they bat first or chase.
The Royals have questions over their batting order too. Do they continue opening with Ben Stokes? Or can they do with his insurance in the middle? What do they do with a misfiring Robin Uthappa? Do they bring in a youngster, at a crucial stage, or keep their faith in the veteran? How do they balance out their bowling to ensure Jofra Archer isn't the lone man standing? There's more. Like Sanju Samson's dwindling returns. Saturday could either answer a few of these questions or throw up new ones.
In the news
- The Royals are not fretting over where they are on the points table. "We've been in this situation before and have come back from this, so we're not panicking about this," Jofra Archer said. "We know it can be done and I believe in this team to do it. There are wins out there and we just as a team need to go out there and get those wins." Well, last time they played an afternoon game in Dubai, they pulled off a heist courtesy Riyan Parag and Tewatia.
- Mohammad Siraj had an off day in Sharjah. RCB have tactically strengthened their bowling by playing seven options at the smallest ground. In Dubai, it's possible they could go back to Gurkeerat Singh. If they are willing to look beyond, they could even hand Shahbaz Ahmed a debut. The allrounder bowls Axar Patel-like left-arm spin apart from being an excellent lower-order batting option.
The Royals huffed and puffed to 154 after Yuzvendra Chahal applied the brakes with a three-for. The Royal Challengers hardly broke a sweat as they cruised home by eight wickets, with Devdutt Padikkal and Kohli hitting half-centuries.
Royal Challengers Bangalore: 1 Devdutt Padikkal, 2 Aaron Finch, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 AB de Villiers (wk), 5 Shivam Dube, 6 Chris Morris, 7 Washington Sundar, 8 Isuru Udana, 9 Navdeep Saini, 10 Mohammad Siraj/Shahbaz Ahmed, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Jos Buttler (wk), 2 Ben Stokes, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Sanju Samson, 5 Robin Uthappa/Manan Vohra, 6 Riyan Parag, 7 Rahul Tewatia, 8 Jofra Archer, 9 Shreyas Gopal/Mayank Markande, 10 Jaydev Unadkat, 11 Kartik Tyagi
- Why fix something that isn't broken? Kohli held Washington back for Chris Gayle and Nicholas Pooran, the two big-hitting left-handers, on Thursday and it backfired. At the first sign of attack, Washington was taken out of the attack. In all other games, he's bowled superbly in the powerplay, conceding at just 4.5 runs an over. He's also dismissed quality batsmen like Rohit Sharma, Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis. Kohli might want to go back to the tested formula, irrespective of whether Stokes opens or bats in the middle.
- Padikkal likes pace on the ball, but against spin, especially early on, he has tended to lose his shape at times while playing the big shots. Aaron Finch, meanwhile, has been out to spin five times this season, the most for a top-order batsman, while only averaging 16.8 against it. Perhaps there's a case for the Royals to give the Royal Challengers a taste of their own medicine and getting their spinners bowl in the first six.
Stats and trivia
- RCB haven't lost a game when they have picked up a wicket in the powerplay this season.
- After the first ten balls, de Villiers' strike rate zooms from 122 to 224, and he finds the boundary once in three balls.
- Shreyas Gopal has struggled this IPL, but now he's up against his favourite team. He has taken 13 wickets against the Royal Challengers, almost double of what he has taken against any other team. He also concedes at less than six an over against them. He even has a hat-trick against them.
- Halfway into the tournament, Archer is the only bowler to bowl 100 dot balls. This is more than 50% of the balls he has bowled, the highest for anyone.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo