Royals still pondering middle-order riddle

Rajasthan Royals have inched closer to having no chance of making the playoffs this year – another loss would be almost certain disqualification – without coming close to sorting out their middle order. On Sunday, the Royal’s crashed from 81 for 2 in ten overs to a below-par 152 for 9 at the Holkar Stadium, the smallest ground across the tournament, best known for that match last year when Mumbai Indians chased down 199 with more than four overs to spare. During the middle phase of the innings, between the seventh and 15th over, Royals lost 4 for 65.
It was a potential problem that surfaced well before the tournament began, with the news of Steven Smith’s ban. Now it’s becoming more and more likely that the plan was not to work around his absence, but to change the plan entirely.
A straight swap with replacement batsman Heinrich Klaasen might have, at best, posed the problem of whether he should be ahead of or behind Sanju Samson and Ben Stokes in the batting order. Instead, Royals have spiralled down a pattern of changing the line-up around so much that it’s hard to tell – perhaps even for their own players – who is going to show up when.
On the face of it, the biggest beneficiary has been D’Arcy Short, who might not have been a regular in the XI with Smith coming in at No. 3 after the expected first-choice opening stand of Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Tripathi. Short has been scoring at five runs per over in the Powerplay this season, returns that would not have earned too many other openers six chances in the IPL. He has never played as a non-opener in 31 T20 innings, so it’s the other openers in the team – and Royals have plenty of those on their roster – who have had to move. To the extent that Jos Buttler, who isn’t a frontline T20 opener, has become their best option at the top.
After the loss on Sunday, spin-bowling coach Sairaj Bahutule said that “overall” Royals’ batting had been all right. The problem, he said, was the lack of partnerships.
“The batting obviously has been very inconsistent,” Bahutule said. “Buttler has been batting really well. It’s just that we really needed to get this batting going. We didn’t have a partnership and we lost a lot of wickets between the 11th and the 15th over. When you don’t have a lot of partnerships going in the T20s it makes it difficult. We have been inconsistent with the batting but it’s just that we have been 20 runs short – the final total we got today. Overall it’s been good from the batting point of view.”
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On close inspection, that is hardly the case. Only one team has scored slower than Royals during the middle overs and that is Sunrisers Hyderabad (7.41), a traditionally top-heavy team who focus on making sure one of the top three bats as deep as possible. Kings XI Punjab match Royals’ scoring rate during that phase with 7.71, but is also a top-heavy team that makes its highest impact in the Powerplay.
The big differentiator between Royals and those two teams is the wickets. Royals have lost 30 in nine innings during that phase and average 20.06 per wicket, far behind Kings XI’s 24 wickets at 24.79.
Royals aren’t setting alight the Powerplays or the death-overs phase either, with middling numbers for both. Even if there has been anything good about their batting, it doesn’t go past individual efforts from Samson or Buttler.
“As I said earlier, partnerships are important. We have good players. We have Jos opening now, we have Stokes and Tripathi. Sanju also has been batting well. It’s just that one big partnership of 50 runs changes everything and that has not happened consistently,” Bahutule said. “That has been the area where we have been working on.”
Royals’ biggest partnerships for the four wickets after the opening stand this season have all involved Samson.