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Match Analysis

Rajasthan Royals reaping benefits of investing in players

Punjab Kings, on the other hand, have chopped and changed, and struggled to narrow down on combinations

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Punjab Kings chop and change. Rajasthan Royals don't.
Both sides rehashed their squads at the mega auction, with six-hitting a big focus area. Royals have hit 102 sixes, the most this season. Kings are second with 82. Surely that means one lesser headache, right?
It depends on which camp you are a part of.
Kings have compounded their woes in trying to achieve "balance" even now, with just three games left for them. Royals have trusted their set formula through thick and thin and are having their best season since 2018. A playoff spot is not too far away as they sit pretty at No. 3.
Questions over Kings' batting plans fail to leave them. If KL Rahul's strike rate was among the major talking points last until year, their management of batting resources has been under the spotlight this time.
Sure, go big or go home has been their mantra. It has paid off on some nights, like in their opener when they shredded Royal Challengers Bangalore in chasing down 206 with an over to spare. On other nights, like against Delhi Capitals, this has spectacularly backfired.
But now, with the season entering its business end and Kings reaching must-win territory, they have had to recalibrate that approach. Which is perhaps the genesis of their chop-change policy.
Jonny Bairstow, who formed one half of a fearsome batting combine up top with David Warner at Sunrisers Hyderabad, had scores of 8, 12, 12, 9, 6 and 32 in the middle order. This may have warranted a change most times. But their other overseas option - Odean Smith - is an allrounder whose bowling has been a bit of a letdown. Perhaps, the thinking is playing him as a batter alone is too much of a gamble.
One of the workarounds they have devised is to move up Bairstow to open with Shikhar Dhawan. But this has come at the cost of pushing Mayank Agarwal, the captain, into unfamiliar territory in the middle order. Until this IPL, he had batted outside the top three just five times in T20s since 2014.
His game is suited to taking on bowlers in the powerplay, like he did in 2020 and 2021. Opening has formed the basis of his batting across formats. It's not something captains generally buy into, especially if you're a new captain in your maiden season.
While it speaks highly of their flexibility, it also perhaps tells you the kind of quick fixes they have had to find the moment they realised their Plan A of going hell or high water needed a tweak.
In comparison, Royals have shown remarkable role clarity.
Riyan Parag is a case in point. They have trained him to be a finisher. But for someone who gets a handful of deliveries, he hadn't been able to make much of an impact in the first half. They continued to back him. In his seventh game, he delivered by bailing the team out with a match-winning half-century against Royal Challengers.
He did so by playing a role he isn't accustomed to. He had to shelve his big hitting, take the innings deep and then tee off. Like Parag, they were clear upfront that Devdutt Padikkal had to be prepared to bat at three or four, and not up top like he had with some degree of success with Royal Challengers. It's a different matter that Padikkal has blown hot and cold.
Jos Buttler's no-holds-barred approach stems from the team management's freedom given to him, the reward for which is the Orange Cap. Sanju Samson has been their enforcer at No. 3. Shimron Hetmyer, along with Parag, their designated end-overs specialists with the bat.
The effect of that confidence was seen on Saturday when he finished the game off for Royals despite the asking rate mounting courtesy Padikkal's struggles. At times, Royals have held him back and promoted even R Ashwin up the order to ensure Hetmyer is able to play the kind of role Dinesh Karthik does for Royal Challengers, and he hasn't let them down.
With the ball, Prasidh Krishna has been a new ball specialist and middle-orders operator. Yuzvendra Chahal and R Ashwin have been their bankers, coming into the game based on situations and match-ups. Trent Boult hasn't been the same wicket-taking force he is known to be.
After a roaring start to the season - seven wickets in four games at an economy rate of 7.30 - Boult is amid a form slump. He went wicketless for three games in a row with an economy rate of 10.4. Among 28 bowlers to have bowled more than seven overs between overs 15-20, Boult's economy rate of 13.62 is the worst. Yet they have backed him to do a job.
This isn't to say Royals haven't erred. But they have quickly learnt from it. The yo-yo'ing of Robin Uthappa from 2020 hasn't been seen. They have tactically changed players depending on conditions and surfaces, like they did on Saturday by reintroducing Yashasvi Jaiswal in place of Karun Nair.
Jaiswal fed off Buttler's aggression to peel off a half-century and while his dismissal could have potentially caused a bit of a stir, Royals still had enough batting in the tank to get home. This same confidence of backing players hasn't quite been seen consistently with Kings.
Early in the season, in trying to fix something that wasn't broken, they benched an in-form Bhanuka Rajapaksa, whose bruising cameos at No. 3 gave them a turbocharge. Then they hinged their bets on Smith, only for the idea to fail, leading to him being benched.
They shelved the experiment of playing Vaibhav Arora, the fast bowler, just when he was beginning to get into his groove. In came Sandeep Sharma, but he has hardly looked a threat when one of his major allies - swing - isn't present. In short, Kings have struggled to narrow down on combinations with just three games left for them.
For a franchise that has far too often changed their coaching roster and been prone to knee-jerk reactions, they somewhat bucked the trend when Anil Kumble was entrusted with the job of building a title-winning side in 2020. But things haven't gone to plan, yet again.
They first lost Ashwin. Then Rahul. This year, they assembled a strong squad that fans and pundits believed would go all the way. Those hopes hang by a thread as they are getting close to that all-too-familiar territory of having to win all games to remain in contention.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo