The Royal Challengers needed 35 runs in the last two overs, but that is no longer the intimidating task it once was, not in IPL 2020 at least. And especially not when AB de Villiers is still batting. T20 cricket's time-honoured wisdom has been to bowl your best bowler in the penultimate over of a chase, but Steven Smith opted to go with Jaydev Unadkat instead of Jofra Archer.
De Villiers promptly dispatched Unadkat's first three balls over the boundary, going midwicket, long-on and square leg. It was the longer boundary, but boundary length rarely matters when you feed de Villiers in his arc. Even Gurkeerat Singh, on 11 off 13 till then, latched on to a short and wide one outside off to slash a four. As a result, when Archer did come on to bowl, he had only 10 runs to defend.
Smith explained his thinking post-match, telling host broadcaster Star: "We wanted to use Jaydev to the bigger boundary, he bowls a lot of slower stuff into the wicket. Obviously the boundary was not big enough for AB."
While there might have been some merit in that thinking, there was also the fact that Unadkat's death overs economy rate in the IPL has been 11.33, and among bowlers who have bowled at least 100 balls at the death, Unadkat's economy is the 10th highest ever. Moreover, it's not exactly a secret that de Villiers can clear most boundaries in the world.
So far in this IPL, Uthappa had batted at either four or five for the Royals, and sat out a few matches too with underwhelming returns. Uthappa's best success in the IPL has come at the top of the order, when he was with the Kolkata Knight Riders. However, he wasn't particularly explosive off the blocks even then, which is why the Knight Riders went for the Chris Lynn-Sunil Narine combination when it was available.
From IPL 2017 onwards, Uthappa had opened just twice until the Royals sent him at the top in this game. It was the fifth opening combination they have tried in nine games. "I've been waiting to open the batting for a really long time," he would say later.
Uthappa duly shrugged aside indifferent form to blast 41 off 22, one of his quickest innings ever at the top of the order. At the end of the powerplay, he had 32 off 16, and the last time he had scored quicker in a powerplay was back in 2016. In fact, Uthappa has scored at a better strike rate in a powerplay only three times in his entire career. He has opened 72 times now in the IPL, but has scored at a strike rate of 150 or more on only 12 of those occasions.
Still, the success he had against the Royal Challengers Bangalore points to the way forward for him and the Royals. He can clearly still go at a quick pace, especially with the field up, as he showed against a competent bowling attack on a large ground. Given the Royals' fairly long batting line-up, Uthappa going hard in the powerplay looks like the best solution to the various problems they have had at the top of the order.
Yes, having Ben Stokes at the top of the order is not a bad idea. But now that the Uthappa experiment at the top has got off to a successful start, the natural fit at the top of the order seems to be Buttler and Uthappa. A left-right combination is good to have, but only when all other things are equal. For the Royals, they not only have a T20 opener in Buttler who has few equals, but opening is also where Buttler has been of most value. The upside in Buttler opening outstrips the downside to Stokes going down the order, simply because of what Buttler can do - and has done - at the top versus how he has gone in the middle.
When he opens the batting, Buttler's powerplay strike rate is 162.7. When he has batted in the powerplay when not an opener, it's a steep fall to 63.0. The sample size is limited, since non-openers don't get to bat as much in the powerplay, but the difference is more stark when you look at the middle overs. Buttler's middle-overs strike rate when opening is an astonishing 148.4. When he's not come out at the top of the order, that strike rate falls to 129.3. Do Rajasthan really want to neutralise such a powerful weapon by pushing him down the order?
How valuable has Chris Morris been for the Royal Challengers?
Amazingly so, and the Royal Challengers haven't even utilised his batting fully yet. In this game, the situation seemed ripe for him to walk out when Virat Kohli fell. The equation was 76 needed off 41 and de Villiers had not faced a ball yet. That de Villiers eventually pulled it off on his own - with Gurkeerat Singh striking at 111.76 at the other end - is down to his genius, but a potential Morris blast in the middle would have made the chase more straightforward. The only time he's batted in four games so far, Morris made 25* off 8, which is not surprising given his overall T20 strike rate is 151.94.
His value to the Royal Challengers this season is best captured via Smart Stats. His bowling rating - impact points per match - is 56.91, which is only second to Yuzvendra Chahal, who has a rating of 63.72. In terms of total impact, he's at the top of the charts for his team with 73.08 per game. His Smart Economy Rate is 3.77, only behind Rashid Khan and Washington Sundar in the entire competition.
His inclusion after a niggle kept him out has given the Royal Challengers potency with the ball at the death and in the powerplay, and a big-hitting option down the order which they ought to make more use of.
Padikkal was on 19 off 16 at the end of the powerplay, which was already not very quick. After the field was spread though, it was even more of a struggle for Padikkal, with only 16 more runs in 21 balls. The pattern isn't new - Padikkal has typically scored at brisk rates in the powerplay but then slowed down considerably. His powerplay strike rate so far in the IPL has been 131.0, as against a middle-overs strike rate of 115.45.
This is directly down to Padikkal's struggles against spin bowling. His strike rate against pacers is 135.40 this IPL, while against spinners it's just 97.50. What compounds the problem for Padikkal - and the Royal Challengers - is that he isn't losing his wicket to the spinners but getting tied down. He's faced 80 balls of spin and been out just twice (seven times dismissed off 161 balls against pace on the other hand). What this means is that Padikkal is not just scoring slowly against spin, but eating up a fair few balls while doing so.