It's a clash of two underachievers. Punjab Kings, the biggest auction spenders by virtue of having the bigger purse, now want to translate potential into performance. Rajasthan Royals, wooden spooners of the previous season, are looking to start afresh under a new captain in Sanju Samson, but have to make up for the lack of experience.
There's plenty of firepower, no doubt. Chris Gayle and Nicholas Pooran bring explosive hitting for the Kings. Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes will try and negate that for the Royals. Kings have the exuberance of KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order, but Royals will bank on the inexperience of either Manan Vohra or Yashasvi Jaiswal to partner Stokes, having off-loaded Robin Uthappa to the Chennai Super Kings.
Royals don't just have batting issues around Samson, Stokes and Buttler to sort. Their middle order looks fairly inexperienced, and Riyan Parag will be expected to deliver more consistently than he has, along with Shivam Dube and last season's breakout star Rahul Tewatia. Without Jofra Archer, the bowler lacks a bit of hostility, which they'll have to try and make up through the smarts of Chris Morris, the costliest IPL buy, and Mustafizur Rahman or Andrew Tye.
In the news
Jofra Archer will miss the first four games, after undergoing a finger surgery in the last week of March in England. He's also been troubled by an elbow issue. In his absence, it's likely one of Mustafizur or Tye will get the nod. It's likely they won't have the services of David Miller, who is still finishing quarantine and has to undergo a few medical tests before getting a clearance. Kings have everyone fit and available for selection.
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Ben Stokes, 2 Yashasvi Jaiswal/Manan Vohra, 3 Sanju Samson (capt, wk), 4 Jos Buttler, 5 Riyan Parag, 6 Shivam Dube, 7 Chris Morris, 8 Rahul Tewatia, 9 Shreyas Gopal, 10 Andrew Tye, 11 Kartik Tyagi/Jaydev Unadkat
Punjab Kings: 1 KL Rahul (capt, wk), 2 Mayank Agarwal, 3 Chris Gayle, 4 Nicholas Pooran, 5 Moises Henriques, 6 Shahrukh Khan, 7 Jalaj Saxena/Saurabh Kumar, 8 Riley Meredith, 9 M Ashwin/Ravi Bishnoi, 10 Arshdeep Singh, 11 Mohammed Shami
Buttler has had the most success in the IPL as an opener, his average of 40.7 and strike rate of 157 across 31 innings is significantly higher than his returns at No. 4 or No. 5. This doesn't factor his returns at No. 6 since he's just played three innings there. So you'd think he's suited to open with Stokes. But there's a question of filling a giant-sized hole in the middle order, so it's understandable they may want Buttler to lend experience. If they choose not to partner Stokes with either Manan Vohra or Yashasvi Jaiswal, their next best option is Liam Livingstone, who they have re-signed. The England batsman has had an excellent last 12 months, for Lancashire in the Blast and for Perth Scorchers, for whom he was the second highest run-scorer in BBL 2020.
Chris Gayle acclimatised superbly to the No. 3 position after coming into the XI halfway through IPL 2020, but is there a case of opening with him alongside Mayank Agarwal? This would mean Rahul drops a position down, to No. 3 or No. 4, where he has an outstanding record: he averages close to 50 and strikes at 140 in 18 innings there. The move could also allow Rahul to shed his conservative approach upfront. He struck at just 124 in the Powerplay last season.
Stats that matter
In the four recent matches between these two sides, the lowest score has been 170. Last year in Sharjah, Punjab Kings made 223 and then saw Tewatia sensationally take them down at the death in an innings for the ages.
Both Punjab Kings and Royals were joint toppers for the worst economy (8.3) in the Powerplays last season. Very little separated their death overs bowling too. While the Royals went at 11.6, the Kings were only marginally behind at 11.2.
In Archer's absence, Morris, who returns to the Royals, will have a key role to play. Last season, his presence tremendously boosted Royal Challengers Bangalore's death-overs bowling. With him in the side, they conceded at just 8.3 in the death over eight games. Without Morris, this economy shot up to 12.4. Overall, Morris has the third-best economy among 43 pacers to have bowled 40+ overs in the death in the IPL.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo