With a five-wicket loss to Delhi Capitals on Saturday, Rajasthan Royals became the second team, after Royal Challengers Bangalore, to get knocked out of the 12th edition of the Indian Premier League.

“This is the strongest squad Rajasthan Royals have ever put together,” Shane Warne, the team’s brand ambassador, had told Scroll.in before the start of the season. “I think we can win it this year. I’m expecting big things, and I’m sure everyone’s tipping us as the favourites,” he added.

The Australian legend had captained the Royals to the title in the T20 tournament’s inaugural edition. His assessment of this year’s squad was, perhaps, based on emotions rather than practicality. The team could manage just 11 points from its 14 matches.

The points table, however, doesn’t quite do justice to Rajasthan Royals’ performance this year. They did finish second-last but, unlike RCB, they weren’t outplayed in most of their matches. In fact, with a little more luck and teamwork they could well have made it to the playoffs.

Rajasthan lost five of their first six matches, and the only lopsided result in those defeats was the one against Kolkata Knight Riders. Such a start to the campaign is almost impossible to get over, but there’s no denying that the Royals were competitive for the most part.

Rajasthan Royals' results in IPL 2019

Opposition Scores Result
Kings XI Punjab KXIP: 184/4 [20]
RR: 170/9 [20]
Lost by 14 runs
Sunrisers Hyderabad RR: 198/2 [20]
SRH: 201/5 [19]
Lost by 5 wickets
Chennai Super Kings CSK: 175/5 [20]
RR: 167/8 [20]
Lost by 8 runs
Royals Challengers Bangalore RCB: 158/4 [20]
RR: 164/3 [19.5]
Won by 7 wickets
Kolkata Knight Riders RR: 139/3 [20]
KKR: 140/2 [13.5]
Lost by 8 wickets
Chennai Super Kings RR: 151/7 [20]
CSK: 155/6 [20]
Lost by 4 wickets
Mumbai Indians MI: 187/5 [20]
RR: 188/6 [19.3]
Won by 4 wickets
Kings XI Punjab KXIP: 182/6 [20]
RR: 170/7 [20]
Lost by 12 runs
Mumbai Indians MI: 161/5 [20]
RR: 162/5 [19.1]
Won by 5 wickets
Delhi Capitals RR: 191/6 [20]
DC: 193/4 [19.2]
Lost by 6 wickets
Kolkata Knight Riders KKR: 175/6 [20]
RR: 177/7 [19.2]
Won by 3 wickets
Sunrisers Hyderabad SRH: 160/8 [20]
RR: 161/3 [19.1]
Won by 7 wickets
Royals Challengers Bangalore RCB: 62/7 [5]
RR: 41/1 [3.2]
No result
Delhi Capitals RR: 115/9 [20]
DC: 121/5 [16.1]
Lost by 5 wickets

What worked

In a season such as this, there’s very little to suggest that Rajasthan Royals had a real grip on things. With defeat after defeat seeing their campaign spiral out of control, the men in pink seemed the weaker team going into most contests. There is, however, one move that paid-off for them. That move was to replace Ajinkya Rahane as captain with Steve Smith.

Rahane struggled for form with the bat for the majority of the league. Barring a 70 against Sunrisers Hyderabad and a hundred against Delhi Capitals, the 30-year-old failed to make any real contribution. His dry patch affected his leadership as well. The Royals simply didn’t seem motivated enough.

All of that changed to a great extent with the appointment of Smith as captain. The Australian, returning to top-flight cricket after serving a one-year ban, made an instant impact after taking charge. The team looked more alert on the field and the skipper was proactive right through every match. Rajasthan won three out of five matches with him as captain, with the game against RCB getting abandoned due to rain. Had the 29-year-old been handed the reins at the start of the season, it could well have been a different story altogether for the Royals.

Steve Smith during IPL 2019 – Rahul Gulati / Sportzpics for BCCI
Steve Smith during IPL 2019 – Rahul Gulati / Sportzpics for BCCI

What didn’t work

As the close encounters in the first half of their season suggest, the biggest hurdle for the Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2019 was their inability to close out matches. Take Chennai Super Kings for instance. The defending champions are loaded with veteran players, and they use that experience to win games. No matter how easy or difficult a situation is, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team simply does what is required, neither more nor less, to secure the two points. Like it did against RR itself when Mitchell Santner hit a last-ball six.

Rajasthan, on the other hand, hardly ever fired in unison. They had bowlers like Jofra Archer and Shreyas Gopal delivering good performances consistently, but the batting unit would let them down. And when a batsman would set the game up, the bowlers would come a cropper. Of the six centuries to be scored this season, two came from Rajasthan batsmen – Rahane and Sanju Samson. But what was the outcome of the matches in which these hundreds were scored? Rajasthan ended up losing both times.

For a team to be successful in a long-drawn tournament like the IPL, every department has to come together day in, day out. Rajasthan Royals failed to achieve that. Much of that was, of course, down to the lack of leadership.

Ajinkya Rahane during IPL 2019 – Rahul Gulati / Sportzpics for BCCI
Ajinkya Rahane during IPL 2019 – Rahul Gulati / Sportzpics for BCCI

Player of the season

Never mind the absence of teamwork, there were indeed some outstanding individual performances by the Rajasthan Royals players through the course of the season. Jos Buttler, their MVP from last year, got three fifties from the eight games he played. The Englishman’s compatriot, Archer, was mighty impressive as well. In just his second IPL, the 24-year-old fast-bowler was someone his team relied on greatly.

In the batting unit, a major highlight for the Royals was the emergence of Riyan Parag. The 17-year-old played with remarkable maturity every time he walked out to bat. He was included in the playing XI in just seven games, but the right-hander managed to leave a mark despite the limited opportunities he got. His fighting half-century against DC in the last game will be a lasting memory of the Royals’ campaign this year.

The player of the season for the Rajasthan Royals, though, was Gopal. The leg-spinner brought his A-game almost every time he stepped on the field, ending the league as the third-highest wicket-taker. He used his variations wonderfully and even picked up a hat-trick against RCB. Some of the big names he dismissed include Virat Kohli [twice], AB de Villiers [twice], Rohit Sharma and Jonny Bairstow. It’s fair to say that the 25-year-old didn’t deserve to miss out on the playoffs.

Shreyas Gopal during IPL 2019 – Faheem Hussain / Sportzpics for BCCI
Shreyas Gopal during IPL 2019 – Faheem Hussain / Sportzpics for BCCI

Disappointment of the season

While there are several names that come to mind for this distinction, Ben Stokes has to be the one who clinches it. Widely regarded as the best fast-bowling all-rounder in the world for a while now, he was expected to be a key contributor for the team. But the 27-year-old struggled to find form with both bat and ball in the nine matches that he featured in.

Ever since the Bristol brawl in 2017 that pegged back his international career, Stokes has found it tough to return to his best. For RR this year, he got past 20 with the bat just twice, without scoring a single half-century, and his economy rate with the ball was through the roof. The Royals would’ve looked like a different team altogether had Stokes played to his potential, like he did for the now defunct Rising Pune Supergiant two years ago.

Another critical factor that went against Rajasthan Royals was their inability to win more matches while their overseas stars were present. The likes of Smith, Buttler, Archer and Stokes left early to join their respective national teams and prepare for the upcoming ICC World Cup. Rajasthan simply had to make the most of these established international cricketers’ presence. These players formed the fulcrum of the team and without them, the Royals seemed like an average unit.

Batting stats of key RR players in IPL 2019

Player Matches Runs Average
Ajinkya Rahane 14 393 32.75
Steve Smith 12 319 39.87
Jos Buttler 8 311 38.87
Sanju Samson 12 342 34.20
Ben Stokes 9 123 20.50
Riyan Parag 7 160 32.00

Bowling stats of key RR players in IPL 2019

Player Matches Wickets Economy-rate
Jofra Archer 11 11 6.76
Ben Stokes 9 6 11.22
Shreyas Gopal 14 20 7.22
Jaydev Unadkat 11 10 10.66

Going forward

Through the 12 editions of the IPL, Rajasthan Royals have finished at the following positions: Champions, 6, 7, 6, 7, 3, 5, 4, 4, 6/7. They haven’t been the worst, but they’ve been far from the best. The two most successful teams in the history of the tournament – Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians – have always relied on a sound team composition. They have a solid core group of Indian players, backed by a few match-winning overseas stars.

This is precisely where a team like Rajasthan Royals has erred. They have struggled to assemble a balanced XI that can win matches consistently. In this year’s auction, they spent Rs 8 crore on Samson, Rs 12 crore on Stokes, Rs 12 crore on Smith, and the most outrageous of the lot – Rs 8.4 crore on Jaydev Unadkat. This, after shelling out Rs 11.5 crore for the left-arm pacer last year. No disrespect to Unadkat, but there’s something grievously wrong with Rajasthan’s strategies for the auctions. Their big-money buys are hardly delivering the goods, and there’s a severe lack of direction within the squad.

With India’s biggest names retained by other franchises, perhaps the most sensible thing for Rajasthan Royals to do going forward is investing in promising young talents like Parag. Spend smartly to bring together a talented group of young Indian cricketers, like Delhi Capitals have, and leave the big bucks for a few recognised international players. A slight change in vision could well see the former champions fighting for the title once again.