Sanju Samson
Rajasthan Royals’ captain Sanju Samson plays a shot during the Indian Premier League cricket match on May 7, 2024. He must lift the team’s morale as they face a resurgent Royal Challengers Bengaluru on Wednesday. Image Credit: AFP

The battle lines for the IPL playoffs have been drawn. Sunday’s rained-off final league match in Guwahati keeps the Rajasthan Royals in third place in the points table, which means the Kolkata Knight Riders play the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the first qualifier on Tuesday. The eliminator will be a clash of the Royals — Rajasthan Royals against Royal Challengers Bengaluru.

Rajasthan go into Wednesday’s match slightly undercooked. They have been winless in the last five games, losing four. That’s not an ideal preparation to face a resurgent RCB, who have strung together a six-win streak to turn their campaign on its head and qualify for the playoffs.

Sunday’s match against KKR would have helped some of Rajasthan’s players to run into form. A win would have put them in second place, which would have given them two shots at the final. Conversely, a loss would have further dampened their morale. Persistent rain prevented that.

How will RCB fare in Chepauk

Momentum is very important in tournaments. Paddy Upton, former mental conditioning coach of the Indian cricket team, recently said on a Gulf News chat show that tournaments of long durations are won by teams with the composure and resilience to overcome losing streaks. On that score, Bengaluru are better placed to win in Chepauk.

After losing seven of their first eight matches, RCB found a second wind to win the next six. So the momentum is with them, and the players’ confidence is high, as evident in the rousing win over the Chennai Super Kings on Saturday. They will bring that high energy into the knockout game at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.

What could queer the pitch is the Chepauk pitch. Cricket pundits say the strip may not be RCB’s liking as it would afford some grip and turn for the spinners. Bengaluru’s spin options aren’t great, although left-armer Swapnil Singh had played a key role in RCB’s revival. Leggie Karn Sharma’s inconsistency is a worry for Faf du Plessis, but the captain can take heart from Glenn Maxwell’s fine spell against Chennai. Singh and Maxwell may not be matchwinners, but they can bowl tight lines and deliver decisive blows.

A slow pitch would put a bridle on RCB’s early aggression, as it would cramp Virat Kohli and Du Plessis in the powerplay. But Rajat Patidar’s expertise in tackling spin will come in handy against Rajasthan’s duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal. In any case, the two spinners haven’t been effective lately, and that’s one of the reasons why Rajasthan lost steam towards the end of the league phase.

If Ashwin and Chahal rediscover their form, Rajasthan can puncture the enthusiasm of the highflying Bengaluru. Who knows skipper Sanju Samson may be tempted to play another spinner in left-armer Keshav Maharaj; that’s unlikely to happen if the league games are any indication. But it’s worth a gamble.

More than the bowling, Rajasthan’s batting woes were central to their defeats. They couldn’t post good totals for the bowlers to defend. Jos Buttler’s absence (he’s joined the England squad) will hurt, but his replacement Tom Kohler-Cadmore has a fearsome reputation forged in franchise leagues worldwide. It will only be his second IPL match, but Kohler-Cadmore is an experienced player who can get into the groove straightaway.

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The middle order has been secure in the hands of Samson and Riyan Parag, but the late middle order has misfired. Dhruv Jurel hasn’t been scoring, barring a fifty, and Ashwin hasn’t been among the runs. The loss of Shimron Hetmyer to injury is a major worry, and Rowman Powell hasn’t finished off games.

So, Rajasthan will be in serious trouble if the top four fail. Quick scoring in Chepauk isn’t as easy as they would have learned from their previous trip to Chennai.

The eliminator has the makings of a low-scoring thriller. In such matches, momentum matters. And the momentum is with RCB. Rajasthan must recapture the magic of the first nine games to deflate Bengaluru. They have the team to do it.

My money is on RCB.