A Royal lesson in how not to T20
Not bowling out one of the team's best spinners, failing to chase 169 after being 87 for 1 in 10 overs, making mistakes with the batting order - it was not a good night for Ajinkya Rahane's team
In the press conference after his team had been eliminated from the IPL, a sullen Ajinkya Rahane spoke of the disappointment that no one from the top order had batted deep enough into the innings to complete what had looked like an easy chase until the 14th over. With nine wickets in hand and ten runs per over to get, the plan, he said, was for him to take on the bowling and for Sanju Samson to bat deep.
"After the first six overs we were 50 for 1 [51 for 1] and after the second time out, we needed 60 runs," he said. "When you have eight or nine wickets in hand, you generally end up getting those runs. The plan was to go deep when me and Sanju were batting. After the second time-out, I just told him that I'll play some positive shots and that if he's still there, he should just try and bat deep."
Rahane said Royals had the "self-belief," that they wanted to build partnerships, and that hindsight is never kind to the team that loses.
"[Heinrich] Klaasen is a very good batsman and he did really well in the last game. It's difficult when you don't get those runs - you try and think about what if K Gowtham had come in at that number [four]. But see, we backed Klaasen. He tried his best. KKR's bowlers, especially their spinners, were really good. I didn't think the strategy was wrong there. Gowtham has batted well at No. 6 or No. 7. "
Self-belief. Positive shots. Batting deep. Backing someone.
These are the thoughts of a mind that is trained to endure challenges over time. But T20s are rarely, if ever, attritional. A mindset that values preservation and occasional calculated risks will often lead to decisions that are anomalies in a game dictated by smart analytics.
The rationale behind sending Stuart Binny in at No. 5, for example, made little sense, statistically, and could only have been justified in two traditionally rooted ways. He was either out there to take singles and get the power-hitter on strike, or, the team was backing his experience. Neither of those reasons are acceptable currency in T20s these days, particularly not when you have 15 runs an over to get with seven wickets in hand and one of your best finishers still in the dugout.
There's not saying promoting Gowtham would have sealed a win for Royals - after all, the reasonably well-set Klaasen himself had a proper struggle - but a punt on him getting 25 off 10, followed by the other allrounders going for the jugular would have been the norm for most sides. Instead, Royals ended with six wickets to spare and a disappointed mentor tweeting from afar about "too many balls wasted." Would the batting order have been as it was if Shane Warne had been in the dugout?
With a thin middle order after moving Jos Buttler up to open midway through the season, Royals had created a pattern of building an innings around one player who batted to the end. And while Buttler slowed down through the middle overs, his remarkable form and natural hitting ability meant Royals could make up for lost runs in the death. When he was around, that sort of caution eventually paid off. The same can't be said about Rahane.
In ten IPL seasons, he strikes at just above 120 and his career strike-rate across T20s is 118.52. In the league phase this season, Rahane struck at 127 during the Powerplays but his scoring rate dropped to a mere 104 in the middle overs. According to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, that was actually worth 80.1. On Wednesday, he was on 28 off 20 after the Powerplay and added only 18 off 21 from there on before getting out.
Yet, somebody had to hold the innings together. No team lost as many wickets (80) as Royals in the overs after the Powerplay this season. Even in Kolkata, there wasn't much in the Royals' line-up that suggested if Rahane fell early, they wouldn't fold for 100.
When Kolkata Knight Riders knew they wouldn't have Andre Russell last season, they covered for it by getting Chris Lynn to make an impact at the top of the innings. They covered for his bowling with the signing of Nathan Coulter-Nile. It was a terrific example of how resource-oriented the game has become. Teams don't replace players anymore, they replace skills.
Royals did try. In their last league game, they sent Jofra Archer up as an opener. The experiment failed on that occasion but it was only given one go. It was symptomatic of their need to protect resources rather than use them fearlessly, and it had already begun when Gowtham didn't bowl out his full quota on a sticky pitch. In the age of real-time data and out-of-the-box thinking, Rahane and his Royals seem to be stuck in the past with each other for company, their small talk a generic admission of averageness followed by a whole lot of hope.
"We just got 30-odd in the last 36 balls. When opponents actually bowl like that, the credit goes to them. But [there are] definitely areas to learn for us next year. We didn't bat that well throughout the season. We batted well in patches but our bowlers were fantastic. We still need to improve our batting and fielding. We'll look to improve and come back next year."
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo