Sanju Samson
Captain Sanju Samson of the Rajasthan Royals plays a square shot during the Tata Indian Premier League match against chamions Gujarat Titans at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on April 16, 2023. Samson played a pivotal knock in Rajasthan’s win that took them to top of the points table. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The Rajasthan Royals thrust an unlikely defeat on IPL champions Gujarat Titans. Unlikely defeat? Yes, unlikely. Because Rajasthan don’t have the look of winners despite the phenomenal talent in their ranks. They don’t have the swagger of the Mumbai Indians or the Chennai Super Kings. Neither do they have the composure of Gujarat.

When Gujarat and Rajasthan clashed in last year’s final, I was sure the Hardik Pandya-led team would win. Simply because they showed a knack for winning in the league phase: they won matches from lost positions, and whenever they were in trouble, one of their players would play a winning knock or bowl a super spell. They had the champions’ look about them. Rajasthan didn’t.

It may be different this year, judging by how Rajasthan took down Gujarat, who retained a vice-like grip throughout Game 23 in Ahmedabad. Rajasthan still lack the body language of a dominant side, and that starts with their captain Sanju Samson, who seems meek and timid. But on Sunday, the Rajasthan skipper showed the steel behind the soft facade and the skill behind his docile looks.

How Sanju Samson turned up the heat

He led from the front with a savage display of power-hitting in the face of some superb swing bowling from Mohammad Shami and Pandya. Rajasthan were 66 for four when Samson turned the match on its head with an assault on Rashid Khan, Gujarat’s “unhittable” leg-spinner. Twenty runs, including a hat-trick of sixes in an over, left Khan and Gujarat in troubled waters.

Rajasthan didn’t look back. After Samson’s departure, Shimron Hetmyer took up the cudgels and the cameos from Dhruv Jurel and Ravichandran Ashwin at the business end took Rajasthan home. It was a remarkable win without Jos Buttler’s contribution. Buttler won the Purple Cap for being the highest scorer last year. Rajasthan showed that their batting is no longer reliant on the England white-ball captain.

In left-arm seamer Trent Boult, Rajasthan have a bowler capable of delivering first-over wickets. Leg-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal, Adam Zampa, and off-break bowler Ashwin make it a world-class attack. When India’s rising star and Gujarat opener Shubman Gill (45 0ff 34 balls) took them to the cleaners, the Rajasthan spinners showed their calibre with the middle-over squeeze, and the threat of a 200-plus total faded despite David Miller’s 30-ball 46.

Gujarat showed that 177 is adequate for the champions to defend as they ripped out the Rajasthan top order. But Devdutt Padikkal (26 off 25) and Samson (60 off 32) steadied the boat before shredding the rival attack. Hetmyer (56 not out off 26 balls) continued his consistent run, and Rajasthan were home and dry.

read more

Did Pandya make a mistake in picking young Afghan left-arm spinner Noor Ahmed to bowl the last over? Yes, it was a mistake. It looks like Pandya tried to do the Mahendra Singh Dhoni trick by trusting an unknown to bowl the final over. Dhoni’s gambles worked all the time, but Pandya’s didn’t. Seamer Mohit Sharma would have done a better job of defending seven runs. But with Hetmyer hammering the ball ferociously, the Rajasthan win was never in doubt.

That was Gujarat’s second loss this year, having suffered a defeat at the hands of the Kolkata Knight Riders. With the Mumbai Indians showing signs of a revival, Season 16 could be one of the most open IPLs. If you don’t believe me, just look at the number of last-over and last-ball finishes.

So hold on to your hats. This is a white-knuckle ride.