Rajasthan Royals are likely to release their captain and premier batsman Steven Smith ahead of the 2021 IPL auction. The Royals will take a final call shortly, before submitting the final list of retained players, the deadline for which the IPL has told franchises is January 20.

ESPNcricinfo understands one of the key reasons behind considering releasing Smith is his middling form in the 2020 IPL, where the Royals finished last in the eight-team league. Smith's weak impact as a leader and batsman featured prominently in the 2020 season review conducted by the franchise. Smith played all the 14 league matches, scoring 311 runs at a strike rate of 131, including three half-centuries.

It is understood the franchise management was keen for the Royals to be more consistent in contention for the playoffs. Having won the IPL in the inaugural season in 2008, the Royals made the playoffs in 2013, 2015 and then in 2018. Smith's lack of impact remained a talking point throughout IPL 2020 as he changed his batting position more than once: he started as an opener before moving to the middle-order.

Ahead of the 2018 auction, Smith was the only player to be retained by the Royals, for INR 12.5 crore (about USD 1.953 million then). In 2018 the Royals started afresh returning from a two-year suspension and appointed Smith as the captain. However, Smith stepped down from the position in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa ahead of the IPL.

But in 2019, after a faltering start to the IPL campaign, the franchise handed the captaincy back to Smith saying it was looking for a "fresh approach" while sacking Ajinkya Rahane, who had lead the franchise to the playoffs in 2018.

The Royals would need to appoint a new captain in case Smith is released. One clear frontrunner within the existing squad is Indian batsman-wicketkeeper Sanju Samson, one of the impact players for the franchise in IPL 2020. On Monday, Samson led Kerala in their first match of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

Samson, who was recently part of white-ball leg of the Australian tour, was bought by the Royals in the 2018 auction for INR 8 crore (about USD 1.25 million then). The key reason for Samson getting picked for the Australian tour was his success in the IPL where he was the Royals' highest run-scorer, making 375 runs at a strike rate of nearly 159, with three fifties. Samson was also part of the Royals leadership group comprising Smith, head coach Andrew McDonald, Jos Buttler, and Ben Stokes.

It is understood that despite both Buttler and Stokes having more weightage in terms of experience and impact, the franchise is not keen on the English pair taking charge as a captain, keeping their availability through the upcoming IPL season in mind. In the past, England players have arrived later or left early to and from the IPL, which usually clashes with the beginning of the English summer.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo