R Ashwin explains how the Royals plan for him to bat at No. 3 came about
Allrounder knew before the season began that he might be used up the order in IPL 2022
Rajasthan Royals have gone in with clear plans for every game. Play six batters, five bowlers and an allrounder. Everything is smooth if they have a good start, but if there's an early wicket, they push R Ashwin up at No. 3 to extend their batting line-up and ensure their finishers don't go in too early and as a result run the risk of being out too soon.
While the merits of those plans are clear to see, they have also resulted in someone like Devdutt Padikkal batting down the order, a slight deviation from his original role of an opener. Royals, it appears, are fine with that compromise. On Wednesday, Ashwin was promoted to No. 3, and while he started slowly, he made up for it by taking the attack to Axar Patel and racing to 21 off 13 and then 26 off 19. The plan was to continue attacking, but Yashasvi Jaiswal's wicket in the ninth over, against the run of play, meant Ashwin had to look to bat through, which he did to bring up his maiden IPL fifty.
"No, there's no license that has been given," Ashwin said when asked if he was sent in as a pinch hitter. "Starting from the season, it was communicated properly to me that I'd be used up the order. We had a few practice games as well where I opened, and I've kind of enjoyed it. I have worked a lot on my batting, so it's nice to see whatever it's been worked on translates on the field. Pretty good feel about the knock today, nevertheless it didn't come in a winning cause."
Have Royals looked at certain opposition and thought Ashwin up the order against them would work better against them?
"No specific plans [like that], " he said. "It's just to keep good intent, keep [his] mental preparation. I've been in good batting rhythm before the season. I've worked on my weight transfer forward, I've made some technical switches, have looked to increase scoring options, some changes to my bat swing. Hopefully, I can keep taking it forward."
Royals got to 107 for 2 in 14 overs but made only 53 off the last six. This was down to the "tacky" nature of the DY Patil surface, where playing shots from get go was proving to be increasingly difficult.
"Today the pitch wasn't quite the easiest so there was communication around that," Ashwin said. "Obviously, the communication to keep going out to play for a few more overs and set it up keeps coming in. More often than not, if you find yourself hitting the 100-run mark by the 13th over, you end up getting to 180, that's generally the kind of algorithm that works.
"Today again we hit the 100-mark on a quite tough pitch while batting first, I think just maybe 15-20 short at the end but like I said you never really know unless both sides have played. We've made a good fist of these sorts of low-scoring games in the past but today, the wickets, catches - nothing really went our way in the second half. It was not our day."
Shimron Hetmyer's absence may have also played a role in Royals shaking up their batting order. The 25-year old West Indian has been among the best finishers this season, but that role had to be taken up by someone else against Capitals. Sanju Samson took responsibility and it seemed the right move given he strikes at 192 in the death but he fell in the first ball of the 17th over, forcing Royals to recalibrate again.
"Hetmyer has gone back home for the birth of his child and Rassie came in place of him," Ashwin said. "Obviously Hetty has been giving us a good finish towards the end in most of the games. A finisher is always worth his weight in gold.
"I thought even the toss was crucial today because the wicket was a touch tacky, and obviously had we had a bit of luck and taken our catches, the game may have taken a different course. At the back end of the tournament, there's always pressure. Hopefully, we can turn it on and string a couple of wins together."
The loss puts Royals in a tricky position. While one more win may help secure a playoff berth, they probably need another to entertain thoughts of finishing in the top-two.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo