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Royal crumble: How strange tactics hurt a brilliant team

Poor use of resources and not utilising Impact Player rule to best effect eventually cost them a playoff spot

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Right from the time Shane Warne put together his motley crew in the inaugural season, Rajasthan Royals are a T20 hipster's team. They don't play to a formula. They experiment. They push the boundaries. They invest in lesser-known players. Like other teams from the north, they don't have a parochial fan base, but they do appeal to a neutral observer.
In this run itself, Royals have used R Ashwin in a way that helped rejuvenate his T20 career, they have used a pinch anchor, then retired him when his job was done, they have played a part in the beautiful development of Yashasvi Jaiswal by gradually expecting more from him, and they have nominated a captain who talks about T20 as a different sport to the rest of cricket.
There is so much to like about Royals, but they are no longer a hipster team now. Two years ago they had Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, among the best that money can buy. Their bowling attack now has three IPL champions. They have a whole analytics wing that helped them develop metrics for players to go after in the auction. They don't fly under the radar anymore; more is expected from them.
Hours after their hopes of making it to the playoffs had ended with Mumbai Indians' win in the penultimate match of the league stage, the Royals leadership would have experienced the cruelty of it all. Royal Challengers Bangalore lost their match in 19.1 overs, thus tipping their net run rate just below Royals'. You wonder how much some of the questionable tactics are hurting the Royals personnel now that they have ended the season in the fifth position, just one win short of qualification for playoffs.
In the decisions that are made before the start of the match, which probably include the coaching staff and the analytics team, Royals were the only team that didn't make proper use of the Impact Player.
In 13 matches that they used the Impact Player, the substituted player and the substitute put together created a total impact of 99.4 according to ESPNcricinfo Smart Stats, easily the worst among all teams. The next lowest was 128.2. It gets way worse for matches they batted first in. In seven matches, the Impact Player created a total impact of 6.9, the next worst being 61.6.
It should come as no surprise. In most matches, Royals' XI was the same for batting first and fielding first: six batters, five bowlers. It defeated the whole purpose of the Impact Player: extra depth in each innings.
Thanks to the quality of their attack - which also was hampered by the non-availability of Trent Boult for a few games - they didn't feel the pinch that much when they bowled first because they would end up with seven batters in the chase.
That is probably why they chose to chase in their sixth and seventh matches - against Lucknow Super Giants and Royal Challengers, respectively - when the ideal choice, especially in a day match in Bengaluru, was to bat first. In both these matches, they failed to use Jason Holder's batting at all, sending him behind Ashwin, who has improved a lot and has been used superbly as a disruptor by Royals but is still less of a limited-overs allrounder than Holder.
In the failed chase in Bengaluru, they sent in debutant Abdul Basith, who had played 73 balls in all T20 cricket, ahead of Holder.
Trying to fit into the middle-overs enforcer role that the injured Prasidh Krishna used to play, Holder didn't quite deliver what he and his team would would have expected. Not using Holder the batter, and not getting the best out of Holder the bowler, Royals just wasted an overseas slot, which could have been used to build the trio of world-beating spinners with Adam Zampa joining Yuzvendra Chahal and Ashwin.
It didn't help that Kuldeep Sen, who made a superb start to his season and could have been the third fast bowler, injured himself during his first match, in Chennai.
Scarred twice when chasing, Royals now began to choose batting in every game instead of asking more of the batters in the chase, even in a night match at Wankhede. That promising start to the season - four wins in their first five matches - was now whittling away, and it all came to a head against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Jaipur.
This was a perfect storm of pre-game and in-game calls that kept going wrong. On a pitch that they felt they needed three spinners, Royals couldn't play Zampa because they also wanted to reinforce the batting with Joe Root. Then they picked Obed McCoy, who hadn't bowled at all since the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, as the Impact Player but proceeded to bowl legspin in the 14th over. M Ashwin, who had already gone for 23 in his two overs, went for 19 more.
Chahal dragged the game back for Royals, but they didn't bowl their best bowler in the 19th, instead giving Kuldip Yadav that over and keeping Sandeep Sharma for the last. In the end, it came down to a no-ball from Sandeep on the last ball, but it needn't have.
This is not to say that Samson or the team management didn't have the team's best interests in mind, but they made too many tactical errors to be able to maximise their potential. It will hurt all the more that this was the year in which their long-term investment in Jaiswal blossomed, they found a solution for the Riyan Parag problem in Dhruv Jurel, the two spinners bowled well while their home venue provided them pitches conducive for them, and Boult kept giving them first-over wickets.
The quality of the individuals in the side still brought them to the brink of qualification, but they just made one mistake too many.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo