If one were asked to pick two teams with nearly intertwined fortunes in this IPL season, the response would invariably be the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Rajasthan Royals. With 7 wins in 14 matches, both the teams have had to deal with 2 washouts and 5 agonizing defeats, placing them at 16 points, with the Royal Challengers slightly better off with a higher Net Run Rate. While the Rajasthan Royals thrashed the Kolkata Knight Riders in a potential knockout match to seal their Playoffs berth, the Royal Challengers were through after their match against the Delhi Daredevils was abandoned. The all-time head-to-head record between the two teams also stands even at 7-7, and as a result Wednesday’s Eliminator promises to be a mouth-watering clash.
Shane Watson looked like a man on a mission against KKR on Saturday. Ever since the all-rounder handed over the reins to fellow Aussie teammate Steve Smith, Watson’s performances – and simultaneously Rajasthan’s form – seem to have undergone a transformation. His unbeaten innings of 104 oozed confidence and belligerence – qualities that will be highly desired in a crunch game like the Eliminator. Ajinkya Rahane, at the other end, acts as a perfect foil to Watson’s aggression, and the duo make for a very impressive opening combination.
If the Rajasthan Royals’ opening combination looks impressive, the Royal Challengers’ openers are nothing short of formidable. While Chris Gayle is arguably the most destructive opener in this format of the game, the masterclass of Virat Kohli needs no description. In an astounding display of sheer creativity combined with clever strokeplay, the RCB skipper crafted the team’s all-important victory against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, and paved their road to the Playoffs. In addition to that, the genius of Ab de Villiers lends an entirely different dimension to RCB’s batting, and if the trio get going, there is not much the opposition can do to stop them.
Although Bangalore’s squad does look heavy on paper, the Rajasthan Royals undoubtedly have the more balanced side of the two. James Faulkner has had an ordinary IPL by his standards, but the purple patch that Chris Morris seems to have struck has more than compensated for it. With the likes of Morris, Faulkner, Hooda and Stuart Binny, the Rajasthan Royals have a lot of depth in the batting, and that will certainly prove to be handy, lest the openers fail on the day. The Royals’ think-tank has to come to a conclusion on young Sanju Samson’s batting position, and it will be interesting to see whether the wicket-keeper batsman is persisted with at the lower-middle order or given another chance at the top.
The arrival of Mitchell Starc has definitely bolstered Royal Challengers’ fortunes. With Starc spearheading the attack, the likes of Harshal Patel and Yuzhvendra Chahal have bowled with renewed zeal and vigour. Sreenath Aravind grabbed a four-wicket haul alongside Starc too, but has been out due to injury for a while. Youngsters Mandeep Singh and Sarfaraz Khan have shown shades of brilliance, but the form of keeper Dinesh Karthik has been a major cause of concern. The wicket at Pune is slightly on the slower side, and RCB would like to ensure that the Top 3 do not fall early. The shaky middle-order is perhaps the chink in their armor, which has otherwise clamoured with the prowess of the batting heavy-weights.
Rajasthan started the season with Steve Smith guiding the side to 5 straight victories, and the journey seems to have come to a full circle with Smith leading them to the Playoffs. His captaincy has been effective and inspiring at the same time, and now his ability to handle a pressure situation will be put to test. The Royal Challengers’ side has plenty of talented players and match-winners alike, but now it will be a real test of the nerves. The team that is able to successfully overcome the jitters and still play a fearless brand of cricket will be the one to survive when the two sides meet in Pune.