'The fault lies more with us than the pitch' - Coach Kumar Sangakkara on Rajasthan Royals' slide
Relaid Sharjah pitch has posed tough questions for batters all around, but Royals' shot selection and adaptability still need review
Rajasthan Royals were the last team this season to get a taste of the newly laid Sharjah pitch, and they didn't cope well: their 90 for 9 against Mumbai Indians is now the second lowest total in IPL history for a completed innings.
Sharjah was the ground that teams went to and set up for scores in excess of 200 last season. Royals themselves have great memories of it, particularly that Rahul Tewatia innings. There was an element of completely changing up plans when going to Sharjah last season and that has persisted this season, albeit in a completely different way.
Of the seven matches played in Sharjah so far - and there are three more left, two of them playoffs - only two have involved scores of greater than 140. Only three out of 14 innings have had fewer than six wickets falling, and Punjab Kings managed to defend 125 in the second match there this season.
Royals, coming in after a high-flying chase against Chennai Super Kings in their last game in Abu Dhabi, failed to adapt and head coach Kumar Sangakkara said that while it wasn't an ideal pitch, it was Royals' batting that went awry.
"These types of pitches are challenging and it's about adapting your game and being smart on it. We've spoken about the Sharjah wickets in the lead-up to this game, what the bowlers have to do, what the batters have to do," he said. "That the first six overs will be easy and then it's the case of building a platform... getting to about 15 overs with wickets in hand so we can capitalise at the back-end. For the bowlers it's about hitting that back of a length, hitting your cross-seams, fast cutters into the pitch.
"But you know on pitches like this, it tests not just your skill but also your flexibility and your mindset. So at times playing on pitches like this is not a bad idea. It's not the greatest T20 pitch in terms of runs, but it is a challenging pitch in terms of coming to terms with it and then playing on it. It's an experience, so we'll have to wait and see how they'll turn up for the [T20] World Cup [which follows the IPL in the UAE and Oman]."
Royals came into the game with a straightforward playoff route on paper: they needed to win their last two games and that would have done it. But the game began with a loss at the toss, which Sangakkara said went against them. After the match, captain Sanju Samson hinted at that as well, saying that batting got much easier in the second innings. The innings with the least wickets falling in Sharjah during this leg have all been in successful chases, and Mumbai's run rate of 11.28 on Tuesday was some distance away from the next-quickest innings.
However, the lack of adaptability stood out sorely during Royals' innings, with their three overseas batters - Evin Lewis, Glenn Phillips and David Miller - all falling trying to play across the line to length deliveries that skidded on low, and Samson and Shivam Dube out flapping away from their bodies. Sangakkara suggested that that batting effort negated anything that the toss could have equalised. Royals had fallen from 41 for 1 to 50 for 5 in the space of four overs and at one point went 79 balls without a boundary. In the ten overs after the powerplay, they made only 33 runs.
"You could probably say that," Sangakkara said about the toss affecting the result. "We haven't played here at Sharjah before, and watching the other games, it seems to be slightly better in the night. And today there was probably a little bit more pace. But once we had only 90 on the board, it was really tough unless you had this amazing powerplay with wickets and very few runs.
"The crucial part for us was we were 42  for 1 after the powerplay, and the plan was then to extend it beyond the 13th-14th over with at least seven wickets in hand. So that we could really target a bowler or two and build that platform in the 15th over. Unfortunately we didn't adapt, Mumbai bowled very well, and we lost too many wickets and we could never attack at any stage. So probably the fault lies more with us than the pitch or the toss."
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo