It all started so well. Sharjah cricket stadium in the UAE with its short boundaries may as well have been the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur. We didn't have Jos Buttler, but it was raining sixes for the men in pink. 216 runs on the board against Chennai, a superb 226 on the board again Kings XI, the Royals were sitting at 2-0 and planning their victory parade through the pink city. But, it was all a mirage. Chennai have shown themselves to be a vulnerable team and Kings XI are weak and inconsistent.
Now here we are, the Royals have lost three games in a row and the early season euphoria has switched to concern, even a little panic. It's not just that the Royals have lost, they've lost badly. 57 run defeat to the Mumbai Indians, 8 wicket defeat to Royal Challenger Bangalore and a 37 run defeat to the Kolkata Knight Riders. Royals captain Steve Smith has scored a total of 14 runs in those defeats, Rajasthan have lost multiple wickets in the power-play and then the middle order has failed to get out of 2nd gear.
Enter Ben Stokes. There's a lot resting on the shoulders of the English talisman, who's returning to cricket after taking compassionate leave to be with his father in New Zealand.
Many will point to the fact that Stokes IPL record is far from exceptional. 22.67 average in 34 matches at a strike rate of 132. 26 wickets 97.5 overs for an economy of 8.25. However, the fact is that Ben Stokes makes things happen.
At the moment, the Royals are all over the place in terms of their balance. Often either one batsmen or one bowler short. Tom Curran has been coming in at #6, usually around halfway through the innings. Robin Uthappa has yet to find his feet in the middle order, his 78 strike rate a far cry from his career average of 129. Likewise, Riyan Parag who's continued to struggle averaging just 5.75 with the bat in four innings. The over-reliance on the top-order with Smith and young Jaiswal out of form, and a misfiring middle order is a recipe for disaster.
Rajasthan invested heavily in the international market, they currently host 8 on their roster. With the limitation that only four can play in any one game, the lack of investment in proven Indian batsmen is proving their downfall. In any one game, you have the internationals that are guaranteed to play in Jos Buttler, Steve Smith, Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes.
With Ben Stokes returning later this month, it will be Tom Curran who makes way. The young death bowler who's been so reliable for England (24 wickets at an 8.92 economy) has been exposed in the IPL in 2020. He's taken 3 wickets in 5 games for the Royals and is going at 11.44 an over, his variations are fooling nobody and his length is constantly picked up and despatched to the boundary.
It could be argued that Stokes record in the IPL has been better with the ball rather than the bat, but his ability to contribute in both areas allows the Royals to strengthen their middle order, all with one simple switch. You're also introducing one of the best fielders in world cricket and anyone who's watched the Royals recently will know that's desperately needed.
Stokes return also takes some pressure off Sanju Samson who's electric start has faltered considerably lately with scores of 0, 8 and 4. The key to Rajasthan turning this around is two-fold, getting their team construction right and getting their misfiring batting back up to scratch.
Buttler, Smith, Samson, Stokes, Uthappa, Lomror, Tewatia, Archer, Gopal, Rajpoot and Unadkat is a balanced team. 6 good batsmen when in form, two spinners, and four-seamers. This also allows them to rotate some of their bowlers to get people like Tyagi a game if Rajpoot continues to struggle for form. We can't forget that Rajpoot's career economy rate sits under 9, but this year he's going at nearly 11.
Ben Stokes can't save the season on his own, but his all-around game, his ability to bat, bowl and field at a high level and his experience will help the Royals create a more balanced team. If they can get the likes of Samson, Smith, Uthappa and Tyagi back in form, then they do have plenty of talent to challenge the majority of teams competing this year. The problem is if you have one player out of form, chances are you can deal with it. When you have 5 or 6, there are no guarantees and a lot will come down to the coaching staff.