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IPL 2011 started with the Rajasthan Royals already on a high – amazingly buying Rahul Dravid in the auction at base price. Nicknamed “The Wall” after numerous legendary performances for his country – he was one of India’s greatest ever cricketers. Other experienced internationals, in the form of New Zealander Ross Taylor and South African Johan Botha, were also enlisted to the Royals cause – and this time Shane Watson was only due to miss the first two games of the season because of international commitments. Add in the fact that the Royals were going to play all 7 home games in their fortress ground at Jaipur and it’s no surprise that hopes were high for a successful campaign.

The Royals opening match was away in Hyderabad against the Chargers. Would they be able to achieve victory in their opening fixture for the first time? Skipper Warne won the toss and elected to bowl. The Royals tight bowling managed to restrict the opposition to just 137. With Rahul at the top of the order the Royals got off to a good start, not losing their first wicket until they had 31 on the board in the 6th over. Then Johan Botha walked out to make his debut and he didn’t disappoint, scoring 67 runs off 47 and leading the Royals to a comfortable win.

Rajasthan’s next match was against Delhi in Jaipur. Skipper Warne lost the toss, but the Royals bowling attack soon made inroads into the Daredevils batting, securing 4 Delhi wickets with not even 40 runs scored. However, Venugopal Rao batted well and carried them to 151. Warne’s bowling was yet again outstanding. The skipper conceded just 17 in his spell and captured 4 wickets. In reply, Dravid contributed at the top of the order and Botha once again top scored, batting through to the end at number 3. Maintaining their reputation for encouraging young Indian talent, young Ashok Menaria was given his first chance at number 4 and scored a composed 22. The Royals won comfortably with 9 balls to spare.

The Royals were two wins from two and in a good place in every sense of the word. Their next match was also in Jaipur, this time against Kolkata Knight Riders and there was more good news. Royal hero Shane Watson had completed his international duties and was back with the group.

KKR skipper Gambhir won the toss and elected to bowl. Dravid yet again gave the Royals a good start. ‘The Wall’ was proving a model of consistency, as well as an impeccable role model to the youngsters in the Royals squad. At the end of the innings, Watson and Taylor provided some lusty blows to help Rajasthan reach a total of 159 – an above par total on a slow wicket. Things were also looking good when the Royals took an early wicket, Bisla run out in the second over with the score only on 8. However, Kallis and Gambhir then took the game away from the hosts, carrying their bats through the innings. Kallis finished with 80 off 65 runs and Gambhir a hugely impressive 75 off 44.

The schedule offered the Royals an instant chance of revenge as their next match was the reverse fixture in Kolkata with only a day’s gap between the two matches, but it was a night to forget for Warne’s team. Put into bat, they were way off form, skittled out for just 81 in 15 overs. Not batting all the overs is a fatal mistake in all limited overs cricket – especially T20. Despite getting Kallis out early, the Royals didn’t stand a chance. Rajasthan’s feel good factor was suddenly not feeling so good – their impressive start had been wiped out. The league table showed they had won two and lost two – was the Royals tendency for winning and losing streaks back with a vengeance?

There was no chance for the Royals to get back into winning ways against RCB in Bangalore because the game was a total wash out. Next destination, Mohali. It was proving to be a relentless schedule and the team appeared tired when they took to the field against Kings XI. Nothing went right from the start. Even when it appeared they had captured the prize wicket of Adam Gilchrist, it turned out to be a no ball.

Then exactly the same happened when Shaun Tait apparently had Paul Valthaty caught at gully in the second over. Again a no ball was called on review. Both the Kings XI openers had got reprieves and they immediately cashed in. Punjab ended the 3rd over on 52 for no loss. It was the fastest team 50 in IPL history and from then on they continued to pound the Royals bowling. When Gilchrist departed in the 5th over to Watson the damage had already been done. Valthaty continued the assault and when he departed in the 10th over Punjab had already crossed 100. Shaun Marsh then played a top innings, scoring 71 runs off 42 to take KXIP to an imposing total of 195. However, the Royals had a strong batting line-up – perhaps they could give Punjab a run – or 196 runs – for their money. Unfortunately in this contest the Royals batsmen looked totally out of sorts. Both openers had gone by the end of the third over and Watson straight after the power play. Rajasthan lost by 48 runs. They simply had to end their losing streak fast if IPL 2011 wasn’t to end in catastrophe…

The team returned to Jaipur looking forward to a settled spell without travel – as the schedule had allocated them three home matches over the next 10 days. The relative breather was much needed. The Royals were below half way in the League, having failed to win in 4 matches – a wash out and three defeats. They needed a pick up. Would the next fixture, against Kochi Tuskers, provide it?

Warne won the toss, chose to bowl, and with some expert field placing ensured the Tuskers never got going on a slow Jaipur pitch. After 15 overs they had put on just 90 for the loss of 4 wickets. Kochi then tried to accelerate and soon started getting out. All six of their remaining wickets went for just 19 more runs and the Royals were set a very achievable target of 110. Watson opened with Dravid and the Royals cruised to victory by 8 wickets in just 14.1 overs.

Sachin Tendulkar and his Mumbai Indians team were the next visitors to Fortress Jaipur. Skipper Warne won the toss and elected to field first on another slow wicket. Mumbai lost their first wicket with 22 on the board in the 4th over. They then kept losing wickets at regular intervals and never averaged over 6 an over. They couldn’t find any tempo and struggled to time their shots. The Royals were set a well below par target of 95 as Mumbai finished with just 94 from their 20 overs. Menaria, Warnie and Botha were among the wickets.

In reply, Botha top scored for the Royals and along with Watson ensured victory in 18.1 overs by 7 wickets. This Royals IPL season was back on course with 8 points from 8 matches – and as in previous tournaments they were looking truly formidable at home.

Pune Warriors were in Jaipur next. This turned out to be a much closer contest than the previous two matches. Ross Taylor had been Rajasthan’s most expensive signing in the auction and in Ajinkya Rahane the Royals had signed a highly rated young Indian talent. Warne won the toss yet again and elected to field. Pune posted 143 for the loss of 7 wickets after a strong second wicket partnership between Manish Pandey and Robin Uthappa. It was a highly competitive total and around the half way mark, Rajasthan had lost 3 wickets – scoring a behind the asking rate 59 runs in the process. However, this match wasn’t over yet. Menaria and Taylor collaborated in a 33 run partnership from 24 balls, before Menaria lost his wicket, but that only served to bring in Rahane – and he came of age with the pressure on. Rajasthan needed 62 off 35 balls – a big ask. However, Taylor and Rahane both responded impeccably, pacing their chase with aplomb. They kept up with the required run rate and reached the target with 3 balls to spare. Taylor ended as top scorer, with 47 off 34 balls.

Rajasthan now had 10 points in 9 matches. With 5 more to play they needed to win 3 games to be sure of qualification.

The team were now back on their travels. Their next match away in Chennai against the Super Kings. A day fixture – and that meant high humidity. Warne won the toss and elected to bat first, expecting the pitch would become slower as the game progressed. Rajasthan started well. Watson and Dravid put on 86 for the first wicket in 10 overs. Sadly, Watson departed first ball of the 11th over, but Dravid was in great form and continued ploughing through despite two more wickets falling quickly. However, the Royals run rate started to drop, only 30 runs being scored between the 11th and the 15th over. Dravid then played a tired looking shot and was caught in the deep. Following his dismissal, the innings fizzled out, the Royals middle order scoring just a run a ball and posting a slightly below par 147 for the loss of 6 wickets. The feeling was that Rajasthan were 10-15 runs short…

Botha captured an early wicket as Chennai started their chase – trapping Vijay in front of his stumps. But Hussey and Raina were also danger men – in fact Raina had more runs than any other batsman through the history of IPL. Both batsmen were top quality as they played with great skill on a difficult pitch. Raina’s wicket wasn’t secured until Chennai needed 3 more runs for the win. Game over.

So now Rajasthan required 3 wins from their last 4 games – not easy, but there was consolation in the fact that two of those matches were at home. The first was the return fixture against Chennai. Warne won the toss and elected to field – but the Royals attack were soon taken apart by the opposition batsmen. Hussey and Raina again came to the fore – and this time Vijay and Dhoni also came to the party – propelling the Super Kings to a formidable total of 196.

In reply, Rajasthan ended the power play with 48 runs and 2 wickets, both Rahul and Watson succumbing to the Super Kings bowlers. From there on it was a struggle for the Royals, with only Ajinkya Rahane putting up a fight from number 3. He scored 52 off 36 but kept losing partners at the other end. Rajasthan ended up losing by 63 runs.

To stand a realistic chance of qualifying for the semis, Rajasthan needed to win all 3 remaining games. The next visitors to Jaipur were table toppers RCB and their legendary West Indies talisman Chris Gayle. RCB won the toss and decided to field. Rajasthan got off to a good start and didn’t lose their first wicket, Shane Watson, until the 9th over with the score a healthy 73. However, Dravid fell in the same over and the Royals innings lost momentum. No one else played a big hand and Rajasthan ended with a less than imposing total of 146.

There was a glimmer of a chance when Chris Gayle presented a catching opportunity to skipper Warne in the 4th over – but the ball went straight through his hands and Rajasthan’s fate was sealed. RCB won by 9 wickets.

Two wins in the last two games would have given the Royals an outside chance of qualifying, but they needed something of a miracle, and that faint hope was extinguished by Kochi in Indore. Rajasthan were bowled out for 97 and Kochi reached the target in just 7.2 overs.

Nonetheless, IPL 2011 still had some drama left in it for the Royals – because Shane Warne, legend of the game and many fans’ greatest bowler of all time, had decided to finally hang up his cricket whites and retire from the game. And what a city to end it in – the home of Indian cricket, Mumbai!

Perhaps it was fitting that the match against Mumbai Indians was dominated by Warne’s protégé, Shane Watson. Shane Senior had insisted on Shane Junior’s recruitment in the first IPL – and had been richly rewarded for his faith in the young Australian by some towering performances. Watson didn’t disappoint in Warne’s swansong match either. He treated Lasith Malinga with utter disdain – smashing him to all parts of the ground as he totalled 89 runs off just 47 deliveries. The Royals successfully chased down 134 in just 13.1 overs and Warne had the winning farewell he deserved.

No single IPL player had bestrode his team like a colossus in the way Shane Warne had led the Rajasthan Royals. Not only did he skipper and coach his team to victory in season 1, but his charisma and sheer entertainment value had helped make the new tournament a worldwide success. His vision, his leadership and his ability to get more than a 100% out of players was unparalleled. Many a young Indian cricketer had thrived because of their marvellous mentor. Quite rightly, the Rajasthan Royals management team decided to retire the no. 23 that night – who else could ever fill that shirt like Warnie did?

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