Sanju Samson
Rajasthan Royals’ captain Sanju Samson plays a shot during the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match against Gujarat Titans at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur on April 10, 2024. Gujarat won by three wickets to hand Rajasthan their first defeat this year. Image Credit: AFP

Rajasthan Royals are the frontrunners in IPL 2024. Wins in the first four matches put them in the lead, and even a narrow loss to Gujarat Titans on Wednesday failed to unseat Rajasthan from the top of the points table.

Does that make them favourites to win Season 17 of the Indian Premier League? They are indeed one of the fancied teams, but not overwhelming favourites. But if they string together consistent displays, Rajasthan could add to the trophy won under Shane Warne’s leadership in 2008. But that’s not easy in a field that includes Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians. Kolkata Knight Riders and Gujarat too have shown they are serious contenders.

Back to Rajasthan. After the heady moment in the inaugural IPL, they never scaled the highs for a long time. They made four more playoffs, but the rest were forgettable. All that changed in 2022, when they reached the final only for the Hardik Pandya-led Gujarat to walk away with the title on debut. Sanju Samson’s team didn’t win, yet served notice that they are a side to reckon with. That promise went undelivered last year, with Rajasthan fading away to the fifth spot.

Two overs for Trent Boult. Seriously? 

The below-par showing was puzzling since the team remained largely unchanged from the previous year. In fact, Rajasthan are a well-balanced side with explosive batters backed by bowling with plenty of depth and variety. So, what went wrong for the team coached by Kumara Sangakkara? It is the lack of consistency that has undermined them time and again.

Take Wednesday’s game, for example. Rajasthan’s 197 was a winning score, but Gujarat’s positive approach was enough to thrust the first defeat of the season on Samson’s team. The game may have won and lost on the last ball, but that also pointed to Rajasthan’s inability to defend the total on home ground with a well-rounded attack.

The loss is a clear reflection of Rajasthan’s fluctuating fortunes. Some of them can be attributed to poor decision-making. Trent Boult bowling only two overs on Wednesday was incomprehensible. The New Zealander is a class act in Twenty20 games; Mumbai Indians would attest to that, having spearheaded their attack for a few years. The left-arm pacer has led the Rajasthan attack well, striking early blows in the powerplay and returning for an over in the middle and even the slog overs when required.

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So, in a tight game when experience and a cool head were needed, Boult remained underutilised. If he was nursing an injury, that’s understandable. Or else Samson erred badly. Who knows, Boult could have bowled Rajasthan to their fifth victory. Samson may have been swayed by Kuldeep Sen’s three-wicket burst, but Boult, who conceded only eight runs in two overs, would have been a better option.

That’s a good lesson for Samson; he would learn from it. After all, the IPL 17 is only 24 games old. There will be more ups and downs, but Rajasthan should ensure the loss doesn’t lead to a slump. That would affect their morale, and they could lose their way.

Right now, Rajasthan look good enough to joust with the big boys. Their batting is no longer reliant on Samson and Jos Buttler. Yashaswi Jaiswal has become a fine stroke player, although he’s been struggling for runs this season. Riyan Parag is finally doing justice to his immense talent after being entrusted the No. 4 slot. Then there’s Shimron Hetmyer at the back end to power the slog overs.

What’s Rajasthan’s Achilles heel?

Bowling looks secure with new ball in the hands of the incisive Boult, followed by Avesh Khan and Sandeep Sharma; there’s Kuldeep Sen to keep the pack competitive. In spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravichandran Ashwin, Rajasthan have two matchwinners.

All that makes them a formidable side. But Rajasthan have to ensure they don’t lose matches from winning positions. That’s the hallmark of champions. That’s what differentiates Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings from the rest. And that’s why they share eight IPL titles.

Rajasthan have to be ruthless. Only then can they win their second IPL title.