Rajasthan Royals' Team Changes Make Little Sense Ahead of IPL Play-Offs

Jaideep VaidyaAnalyst IMay 19, 2014

Rajasthan Royals batsman Shane Watson walks back after his dismissal during the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket match against Kolkata Knight Riders in Kolkata, India, Sunday, April 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Bikas Das/Associated Press

There is a thin line between being smart and being over-smart. The outcome of your actions often determine on which side of the fence you've fallen.

The Rajasthan Royals fell on the wrong side after their match against the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League at Ahmedabad on Monday.

Ahead of the two sides' first clash of the season, the Royals were sitting pretty in third place on the table with three matches to go, needing just one win to confirm a place in the play-offs. An unlikely loss in all three games could open the doors for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, currently in fifth, to sneak through.

The key word here is "could." There was still the faintest of chances of them being kicked out of the top four. Going by form, it looked highly unlikely that the Royals would lose three straight games, but they could.

What do you do in such situations? Do you experiment with your team or play your best XI and eliminate any possibility of being knocked out, before rotating your squad?

The question had come up because of the Royals' experimentation in the two matches prior to Monday's game. Against Chennai Super Kings, the most consistent team in the IPL, the Royals had dropped Sanju Samson, one of their most consistent batsmen over two seasons, and given a debut to Ankit Sharma.

What's more, Sharma was promoted to the top of the order and Ajinkya Rahane, a natural and proven opener, was dropped to No. 3. Kane Richardson had also been dropped, and Kevon Cooper was given his first game of the season.

Rajasthan lost the match by five wickets.

In the next game, against bottom-placed Delhi Daredevils, Royals skipper Shane Watson decided to have a rest, and Ben Cutting came in. Sharma was dropped after just one game, and Rahane was back up the order.

Rajasthan won that match by 62 runs.

Coming into the match against Mumbai, who were second from bottom, Richardson confirmed that the Royals would go back to their best XI. Speaking ahead of the match, Richardson said, as reported by ESPNcricinfo:

No experiments; we are after a win. The way the points table is looking, Kolkata Knight Riders are a threat as well. So for us, it is about getting that win to get us through to the playoffs. And it will be nice to do it this game. If you do that kind of stuff [experiment], you set yourself up for bad luck. You have to make sure you win. If your team has qualified for the finals, you can think about stuff like that.

Fair point, Kane. But was your team management listening?

When Watson walked out for the toss on Monday, you would have thought that the Royals had gone back to their best XI. As it turned out, rather bafflingly for almost everyone following the game, the Royals had dropped Rahane and given Unmukt Chand his first game of the season.

Also finding himself on the bench was Pravin Tambe, their leading wicket-taker this season. Sharma was back, and so was Brad Hodge, as Steven Smith made way for his countryman.

What made Rajasthan's decision sound even more ridiculous was the fact that Tambe was robbed off playing on a pitch that was a slow and turning one, bound to get slower and assist the spinners more and more as the game progressed.

Rajasthan played just one spinner on such a pitch—the inexperienced all-rounder Sharma. Mumbai played three, including the experience of Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha.

The Royals went ahead to lose the toss first, were asked to bat second by Mumbai, and then lost the match by 25 runs, after conceding 178 runs.

A loss in their next two matches, against an in-form Kings XI Punjab and a returning-to-form Mumbai Indians again, could mean them losing out on a top-four finish on net run-rate, provided Kolkata Knight Riders win one of their remaining three games and Royal Challengers win two of their remaining three.

"Whichever XI are there tomorrow, there is a reason why they have been picked," Richardson had said on Sunday.

The Royals can only hope the reason, which is clearly privy only to their think tank, does not prove to be a costly one.