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Match Analysis

Shaky middle order beginning to hurt Rajasthan Royals at crucial stage

Since the start of May, RR's Nos. 5 to 8 average 12.46 with the bat, one of the reasons behind their four straight losses

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
Avesh Khan knew he had erred. Sanju Samson sank to his knees as soon as the shot was played. He blankly looked at the bowler, who walked away with a sheepish grin.
Avesh had struck twice in three balls of his first over with full-length balls. Rilee Rossouw sliced a drive to backward point and two balls later, Shashank Singh was done in by the 141.3kph in-curler to be trapped lbw. These were the third and the fifth deliveries respectively that Avesh delivered on the night after being brought on in the fifth over. And yet, it was not until his 15th ball - in the 17th over of the chase - that Avesh bowled another full ball.
Instead, he chose to dig in a legcutter halfway down the pitch and just outside off, giving enough time for the new batter Ashutosh Sharma to ramp it over the wicketkeeper. Samson, and Rajasthan Royals, felt helpless at that point. Ashutosh's blitz combined with a steady, unbeaten half-century from captain Sam Curran helped Punjab Kings extend RR's run of losses to four. That meant RR were still not assured of a top-two spot on the points table despite reaching 16 points after their ninth match, when the next best team was on 12.
This was not to suggest that Avesh's lengths, or RR's bowling in general, cost them the match. Their batting underfired to leave them with 144 for 9, a below-par total.
It was the first match of IPL 2024 in Guwahati, so how the surface would play was unclear. Samson alluded to the absence of dew as the reason behind wanting to bat first. At the press conference later, Nathan Ellis, playing his first game of the season, said PBKS also wanted to bat first. When the first ball pinged off Yashasvi Jaiswal's blade through covers, it looked like a good toss to win.
But Curran, who opened the bowling, shortened his length a touch and got it to swing in to have Jaiswal play on. Arshdeep Singh, and later Ellis, also figured out that length and short-of-length deliveries were not easy to hit on this surface. The ball was skidding on and almost hurrying the batters.
The PBKS bowlers exploited the good-length and short-of-good-length areas to keep RR largely quiet in the powerplay. That resulted in Samson trying to manufacture a shot and cut one straight to backward point. Ellis had bowled it on a shortish length and outside off, which, on a slower surface, might have had Samson mistime it. But this one carried straight into Rahul Chahar's lap. It turned out to be the blueprint of the bowling attack - for PBKS as well as RR - for the rest of the night.
"[It was a] slow wicket [and I] thought Kings bowled really well on it," Shane Bond, RR's assistant coach as well as fast-bowling coach, said later. "They gave us an indication of the way to bowl. They bowled straight and the only time we hurt them was when they offered up some width. Our goal was to do exactly the same - bowl straight and wicket-to-wicket, try to make things as hard as we could."
R Ashwin, in at No. 5 in the eighth over, and Riyan Parag added 50 off 34 for the fourth wicket. During their stand, only two fours came off the seamers. Ashwin hit three fours and a six, all against spin. When he tried to whack Arshdeep, he ended up slicing the length ball to sweeper cover. Dhruv Jurel also lasted just one ball, pulling a length ball angled into him from around the stumps straight to midwicket. RR slid from 92 for 3 to 102 for 6 in the space of ten balls.
Parag managed to keep the scoreboard moving but did not receive support from the other end. He failed to pick up a dipping full toss from Harshal Patel and was hit flush on the back thigh in front of the stumps in the final over. Harshal was welcomed with a four in the last over of the powerplay, but then resorted to cutters and length balls to keep the batters quiet. At the death, he mixed his pace as well as lengths to help PBKS restrict RR to 144.
The surface was not the only reason behind RR's sub-par total. Since the start of May, their Nos. 5 to 8 average 12.46 with the bat, the lowest among all teams. They have used seven players in all these positions, with only Chennai Super Kings using more (eight). With Shimron Hetmyer's injury combined with their varied tactics, RR have not had a settled middle and lower middle order, and the results show.
"We didn't think dew was going to be a factor and it wasn't," Bond said. "We thought the pitch might get slower, and if we put a score around 170-180, if the wicket would have got slower with our bowlers, it would have been hard work [for the opposition]. It would have been, if we got those runs, we didn't."
The departure of Jos Buttler for England duty meant RR had to change their opening combination - they brought in Tom Kohler-Cadmore. Samson and Parag at No. 3 and 4, respectively, have worked so far. But what follows is instability, which could be a cause of concern and reflected in their four successive defeats.
"I thought it is a blip and they would pick it up but now it is a worry," Varun Aaron said on ESPNcricinfo TimeOut. "They should be worried, they have to figure out the middle order. In the pressure games, the middle order has to come to the fore and deliver. So they have to be worried especially of the middle order."
With IPL moving towards the business end, RR don't have much time to rectify their errors. Last year, a series of losses towards the end of the league stage cost them a playoff spot. This time it could cost them a top-two finish. Samson would not want his team to err for a second year in a row.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Sudarshanan7