Today’s battle was between controversy’s two most favorite children- KL Rahul and Steve Smith. While Steve Smith came back from the infamous sand-paper gate controversy a year back, Rahul came back after a brief suspension, due to his comments at Koffee with Karan. Both of them have been owning the international arena post their comeback, for the first time, they locked horns this year at IPL 2020.

Sharjah is the UAE’s Chinnaswamy. Short boundaries, flat pitch, fast outfields make the ground a nightmare for bowlers. Kings XI came out to bat after losing the loss, with two of their most trusted compatriots opening the innings- Rahul and Mayank. From the first over itself, there was no respite. Mayank had shown from the first match that he is in mindblowing form and he could be one of the major contenders for the orange cap this IPL. In the last match, he was dismissed cheaply as he misread a googly from Chahal, but he made amends big time against the Royals.

It was evident in the first few overs, that 200 will be a par score on this surface. The comfort with which Mayank was driving Jofra Archer off the front foot only reconfirmed the fact that there was neither bounce nor swing on the wicket available for the fast bowlers. KL Rahul and Mayank played good textbook cricket shots to take the team’s score to 60 off the first 6 overs.

Mayank Agarwal of Kings XI Punjab celebrates

It was clear from the powerplay, that the pacers were not able to extract anything from the wicket. To survive against the power-packed batting line-up they needed to rely on a change of pace. Smith brought in his spinners after the powerplay with the hope of picking up either Rahul or Mayank.

Blatantly speaking the spinners bowled bad lines on this surface. The margin for error on such a surface is extremely low and both Gopal and Tewatia either pitched the ball up or bowled short to both Rahul and Mayank. Mayank unfurled his series of cuts, drives, and sweeps to do the same thing to Rajasthan, that Samson did to the CSK spinners some nights ago. It is confusing to think that both Tewatia and Gopal bowled a very good length on this same pitch to the CSK batsmen, a couple of nights ago and today they faltered big time – Th effect of Pressure. Some rise to the occasion under pressure and some wither.

KL Rahul is increasingly looking like making this IPL his own. I have a feeling that this IPL for KL Rahul will be very similar to the 2016 IPL for Virat Kohli. I hope I am proved right because it will be very good news for Indian cricket if that happens. However, credit needs to be given to KL Rahul, the leader as he played second fiddle to Agarwal tonight. He did not try to match his partner shot by shot but preferred to give him the maximum strike.

Agarwal scored a majestic century tonight. He was brutal to the spinners, equally merciless against the pacers, and thus dismantled the RR bowling attack. He has scored centuries and double centuries in international cricket as well as in the domestic arena. But this century will be particularly sweet to Agarwal as IPL has been his ill-starred tournament so far. This century should mark the coming of age for Mayank in IPL and the fact that it was a chanceless innings at more than a strike rate of 200 will only give the right-hander a huge boost of confidence.

Mayank Agarwal of Kings XI Punjab raises his bat after scoring a hundred during match

To be fair to Rajasthan, they pulled it back in the last 5 overs. KXIP was slated to reach the 250 mark and both Ankit Rajpoot and Unadkat used the change of pace to good effect, in the slog overs. Archer, Unadkat, Rajpoot, Tewtaia, and Gopal all went the distance tonight. However, Rajpoot bowled good length on this pitch, and had it not been for a few edges flying off to the boundary his figures would have looked better.

Just a little note here. Look at Pooran’s clean hitting in the last couple of overs today. Not long before, he scored 2 ducks in the same match. He was not dropped immediately, instead, he was given confidence by the captain. He was entrusted to bat at 3 in the next match. Look at what a captain’s trust can do to a player. He finished off the KXIP innings with clean -hitting and scored a brisk 25 off just 8 balls to close the innings.

Steve Smith is going to open the batting for RR this year. The last match, I thought it was a one-off incident, but coming out to bat at the top despite the presence of Butler and Uthappa in the line up only convinces me that Smith is going to open for the team in the subsequent games as well. He started the chase very well for the Royals tonight. Steve Smith is increasingly coming out of his shell of being an accumulator in T20 to being a frontline hitter in the format. If Butler and Smith both start firing at the top of the order, God helps the rest of the teams in the competition.

Steve Smith captain of Rajasthan Royals play

Smith scored a brisk 50 to give his team a solid powerplay, which is indispensable while chasing such a huge target. Samson joined Smith after the early dismissal of Butler and he just carried on from where he left last night against CSK. The difference was that he was hitting the bad balls for boundaries against CSK and today he was timing the good balls over the fence. Samson is looking much fitter than the earlier editions as well and his square-of-the-wicket game has improved by leaps and bounds this IPL. There have been poetic justice served before in the field of cricket. Virat Kohli scored a majestic 183 in the last ODI of Sachin Tendulkar– it was like an invisible handing over of the baton from Sachin to Kohli. This is probably MS Dhoni’s last IPL- will it be Samson’s best season ever in IPL? Will it mark an official handing over of the baton from MS Dhoni to Sanju Samson. We have to wait to find that out.

Samson scored a brutal 85 off 42 deliveries, where he played every opposition bowler with comfort and ease. KL Rahul realized that Samson can take the match away from his team and brought his premiere bowler on much before the slog overs. Shami dismissed Samson with a peach of a delivery and it was almost curtains for RR with that dismissal.

Sanju Samson of Rajasthan Royals play
Sanju Samson of Rajasthan Royals

The worst piece of advice going around is that “Never change a winning team”. It is strange how great captains have fallen prey to this and today KL Rahul found it out the hard way. Death bowling is a weak link for this KXIP team. Marcus Stoinis exploited this weakness in the first match. The issue did not come to fore against RCB as they lost too many wickets before they got into the slog overs. I stated the same in my match report as well, that I hope Kumble and Rahul find the issue out with death bowling before they repent.

Sheldon Cottrell of Kings XI Punjab celebrtaes the wicket
Sheldon Cottrell of Kings XI Punjab

Well, it was their turn to repent tonight. Rahul Tewtaia who has struggled his way to 14 off 22 balls found his mojo against Cottrell and smashed him for 5 sixes. While this was very good batting, it was rubbish bowling by the bowler as well. He kept bowling into Tewatia’s arc, with no intent to change the angle for the left-hander. After that decisive over, the Royals needed just 21 off 2 overs, which they scored with ease to complete the highest successful run-chase in IPL history.

As I stated after the RCB match as well, KXIP needs to have Mujeeb in the playing 11. That would free up Shami for a few more overs at the death and Mujeeb is a good option for the death overs as well. I hope KXIP rejig their combination before it costs them another match.