A Rajasthan Royals campaign built on the Shane Warne way of playing cricket
From the way their spinners have outwitted opposition batters to the way they've backed their youngsters, this campaign has had the late great Australian's DNA all over it
The shadow of Shane Warne, their captain, coach and talisman during their remarkable title run in the inaugural season of the IPL, has loomed over Rajasthan Royals' campaign of 2022, and it almost feels like fate that they've reached the final for the first time since the heady days of 2008.
After scoring his fourth hundred of the season to steer Royals into the final, Jos Buttler was inevitably asked about Warne. "He is such an influential figure for the Rajasthan Royals and having led the team to success in that first season, we will miss him dearly, but we know he is looking down on us with a lot of pride today," Buttler said at the presentation ceremony. "He made us believe."
The 2022 Royals have an identity of their own, of course, forged by their coach Kumar Sangakkara, their captain Sanju Samson, and a core group of immense skill and experience that includes Buttler, Shimron Hetmyer, R Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal and Trent Boult. But if you look for it, you'll find bits of Warne that remain in the team's DNA.
Chahal bowls the pressure overs
Where most wristspinners in the IPL fire the ball into the pitch, attack the stumps relentlessly, and bowl the wrong'un almost as often as their stock ball, Chahal shows immense faith in his legbreak, and is unafraid to give the ball a bit of air and challenge batters to go after him. He'll never be as good as Warne - who ever will? - but his style of bowling isn't all that different.
And like Warne, he puts his hand up and bowls the difficult overs. Australia's captains loved using Warne in the high-pressure overs during his ODI career. Think of the Mohali World Cup semi-final of 1996, when Mark Taylor kept four overs of Warne in reserve until the 45th over, which began with West Indies needing 30 off 36 balls, with six wickets in hand. What happened next was three wickets in three overs of Warne magic, West Indian panic and an Australia win for the ages.
Warne had retired from international cricket by the time the IPL happened, and his bowling was at a level below what it was at his peak, but that didn't stop him from bowling the challenging overs. During IPL 2008, he was one of only three spinners - Muthiah Muralidaran and Pragyan Ojha were the others - to bowl 30 or more balls in the slog overs (17-20).
At Royals this season, the team management has given Chahal a role very few spinners have ever performed in the IPL. He's bowled 78 balls in the death overs already - Wanindu Hasaranga and Rashid Khan are a distant joint-second among spinners at 36 balls each - and only Sunil Narine has ever bettered that total in the IPL, doing so in three successive seasons from 2012 to 2014.
Ashwin tees off (not recklessly)
Warne sparked widespread merriment on Twitter when he prescribed a radical formula for England to counter India's unstoppable spinners during the second innings of the pink-ball Ahmedabad Test of 2021. It involved, among other things, promoting Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad to bat in the top three, with the mandate to "tee off (not recklessly) but aggressive."
Warne, as he made clear a million times as a TV commentator, loved pinch-hitters, and he had often been used as one in white-ball cricket, most memorably during - once again - the 1996 World Cup, when he went in at No. 4 and clattered 24 off 14 balls to ease Australia's progress in a chase of 287 in their quarter-final against New Zealand in Chennai.
There's a bit of Warne in Ashwin's bowling - the drift, the variations, the intricate plotting of wickets, and above all the competitive edge he brings to contests - and this season, Royals have also looked to maximise Ashwin's batting ability by pushing him up the order to make up for their lack of depth. They've used him in a variety of roles - as a pinch-blocker after a top-order collapse, as a pinch-hitter at No. 3, and even as a genuine finisher - and he's responded with his best IPL season by far with the bat: 185 runs at an average of 30.83 and a strike rate of 146.82.
Along the way, Ashwin also made history by becoming the first batter to retire out in the IPL. We don't know what Warne would have made of the move, but we suspect he might have approved.
In 2008, Ravindra Jadeja was a 19-year-old with immense all-round potential, and Warne recognised that he could become a serious player one day, picking him in 14 out of Royals' 16 games. Jadeja barely bowled back then, sending down just 2.1 overs through the entire season, but contributed a couple of cameos down the order - Warne called him a "future superstar" after he hit 33 off 19 against Kolkata Knight Riders - and caught everyone's eye with his electric fielding.
In 2021, Riyan Parag, a 19-year-old batting allrounder with immense potential, went through a horror season: 93 runs in 83 balls spread over 10 innings. Royals saw something in him, though, and re-signed him at the 2022 auction. They recognised that he performs a difficult role in the slog overs, and while his overall returns this season - 168 runs at an average of 16.80 and a strike rate of 143.58 - aren't hugely impressive on the surface, they reflect the role he's played, usually walking in with next to no time remaining in the innings. On one of the few occasions when he got to spend time in the middle, he scored a priceless, unbeaten 31-ball 56 on a tricky pitch against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
And, like the Jadeja of 2008, Parag has been a standout fielder, making countless boundary saves in the hot zones at long-on and long-off, and taking more catches (16) than any other fielder in the competition. He's celebrated each of them in a cheeky manner that's rubbed traditionalists the wrong way, but you can bet that Warne would have loved his chutzpah.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo