The Rajasthan Royals went into IPL 2014 with a totally new look. They had rung the changes in the Player Auction earlier that year, and uncharacteristically for the Royals, they’d spent big. Steve Smith, Tim Southee, Rajat Bhatia, Kane Richardson and Unmukt Chand were all added to the squad.

The Royals were also under new leadership on the field. This time around, the skipper was to be Australian swashbuckling batsman Shane Watson because Rahul Dravid had become team mentor. Ajinkya Rahane was still around to open the batting. ‘Jinks’ had been a consistent performer with the bat for the Royals over previous seasons. In Brad Hodge and Sanju Samson they also had two seasoned Twenty20 batsmen who could absorb pressure and accelerate the innings.

Their bowling department was comprised of James Faulkner, Tim Southee, Kane Richardson, Kevon Cooper and Vikramjeet Malik. The new signings Amit Mishra and Steve Smith would provide spin-bowling options. Last year’s narrow failure to reach the final of the tournament showed they had the ability to thrive in the IPL, but could they go one step further this year and lift the trophy like they did in 2008?

Rajasthan’s first match was against Sunrisers Hyderabad away. Well in reality both teams were away, because the match was held in Abu Dhabi! This IPL season was kicking off in the United Arab Emirates, and which teams adapted fastest to the different conditions would have a big influence on the round robin stage table.

The Royals bowlers soon made an impression on the tournament, Dhawal Kulkarni striking in the first over and removing the dangerous Sunriser Batsman Aaron Finch. James Faulkner, who had two ‘Michelles’ (five fors) against Hyderabad in IPL 2013, was surprisingly expensive. Faulks leaked 27 runs in his 3 overs. However, the other pace bowlers in the team, Kulkarni, Bhatia and Richardson, all bowled tightly, picking up two wickets each and restricting SRH to 133 for 6. It was a target well within Rajasthan’s sights.

Like the Sunrisers, the Royals lost a wicket in their first over, that of Abhishek Nayar to the fiery South African Dale Steyn. Partly because of that setback, the Royals got off to a slow start, and Samson and Watson were out cheaply trying to boost the run rate. However, Rahane and Binny steadied the ship with a partnership of 77 runs for the 4th wicket. Rahane had been dropped by Finch on 9 and he cashed in – scoring 59 before hitting the ball high into the sky. This time Finch took the catch.

The match was evenly poised going into the last over of the match. However, the Royals held their nerve and successfully chased down the total with 4 wickets in hand and 3 balls remaining. They had started another IPL with a victory. Hopefully Watson’s warriors would use this win as a springboard to great things…

Their next match was just two days later, at home against Kings XI in Sharjah. In this fixture, the Royals fielding wasn’t up to scratch. Dropped catches cost them the game with Punjab reaching the target by seven wickets. Rajasthan also lost their next game, against CSK, by the narrower margin of 7 runs. Royals old boy Jadeja picked up the four big wickets of Watson, Samson, Smith and Southee – and that proved to be a major factor in Rajasthan falling short. Now with two losses following their opening match win, the Royals needed to turn things round quickly if they wanted to avoid having to play catch up in the latter stages of the tournament.

Their fourth fixture was against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Abu Dhabi. Shane Watson won the toss and decided to field. Stuart Binny bowled the first over and soon made inroads into the formidable RCB batting line up. Opener Yogesh Takawale tried to take on medium pacer Binny, but only succeeded in feathering it into the gloves of the Rajasthan keeper. Next ball, Virat Kohli called for a run, but Parthiv Patel was slow in responding and didn’t make it. RCB had lost both their openers in the first over, and it precipitated a dramatic collapse…

Tim Southee bowled the second over giving away only 4 runs. Then on came Kane Richardson for the third over – and what a start for the bearded maestro! First ball he got Yuvraj out. Next ball he removed AB de Villiers, thanks to the South African chopping the ball onto his stumps. Royals fans couldn’t believe the score board: RCB were 5 for 4 in 2.2 overs!

Virat Kohli tried to stabilise things, and was disappointed to see Rana succumbing to Watson at the other end in the 6th over. Then in came Morkel, but Pravin Tambe soon removed him with the help of Steve Smith’s safe hands at mid-off. Mitchell Starc gave Kohli good support. Together they added 18 runs – the highest partnership of the RCB innings. Tambe ended this mini recovery, removing Kohli with his slower ball. Starc and Rampaul added 16 runs before Rajat Bhatia bowled a wide delivery outside off, giving Starc an invitation to cut, but the Australian didn’t keep the ball down and he was caught by Binny.

RCB were in deep trouble at 62 for 8 when Tambe was asked to bowl his final over. He responded by picking up the last two wickets, wrapping up the RCB innings nicely. The Bangalore batsmen had looked all at sea against the well disciplined bowling attack of the Royals. They could only total 70 runs in 15 overs. The Rajasthan batsmen made short shrift of that target, knocking the runs off to secure victory by six wickets.

The Royals were 50 / 50 – played four, won two, lost two, and although so far they weren’t setting this IPL on fire, they were still performing well under their new leadership team in spells. Next up, Kolkata Knight Riders, and it would prove to be a classic…

Shane Watson won the toss and decided to bat first. Rahane, as usual, gave the Royals innings a good start, but wickets kept falling at the other end. Karun Nair was dismissed in the third over and Sanju Samson joined Rahane on crease. Together they added 41 runs in 6.1 overs before Samson was bowled by Shakib Al Hasan. Next in was skipper Watson who began building a strong partnership with Rahane. They scored 64 runs from 7.3 overs. However, with the score on 118 for 3 an unfortunate run-out sent Watson back to the dugout. Binny came in but was out to Morkel first ball – and then Rahane’s fine innings came to an end. He scored 72 runs and the Royals finished on 152 for 5 from their 20 overs. It was a competitive total – but the bowlers would have to be on top form to defend it.

In reply, KKR got off to a shaky start. Bisla looked uncomfortable scoring just 3 runs off 9 balls before losing his wicket. In the 6th over, Watson thought he’d removed Kallis for 1, but the third umpire correctly called it a no-ball, Watson having stepped over the line. However, Pravin Tambe finally got the South African danger man out in the ninth over when he was on 13. Manish Pandey came in next and scored 19 quick runs before Tambe also captured his wicket. In the next over, Gambhir was caught for 45 at deep square leg by ex-KKR player Iqbal Abdulla.

Two new batsmen, Shakib Al Hasan and Suryakumar Yadav, got the Knight Riders back into the game, adding 49 runs in just 26 balls. After 18 overs Kolkata were 137 for 4 and looking poised for victory. However, it was James Faulkner’s birthday and he decided to celebrate by turning this game on its head. The Aussie picked up 3 wickets in the 19th over – and suddenly KKR were on 141 for 7 going into the 20th over. Shakib Al Hasan tried his best to help his team surpass the Royals total of 152 in that last set of six, but he narrowly failed, and had to settle for reaching exactly the same score, sending the match into a Super Over.

The Royals bowled the first Super Over, conceding 11 runs and picking up 1 KKR wicket. The Knight Riders were confident their spinner Sunil Narine could defend that total. However, with three runs needed off the last ball to get past the KKR score, Steve Smith cleverly played a smart dab on the off side to pick up an easy couple, thus levelling the match again. Was it a tie? No, the Aussie had done his homework! With the scores the same, Rajasthan Royals were awarded the two points, because they scored more boundaries in their innings. Birthday boy James Faulkner got a welcome and well deserved present in the form of a Man of the Match award for his 3 wickets for 11 runs.

The Royals next fixture was against the Delhi Daredevils. Batting first, the Delhi openers started off well, achieving a rate of 8 runs per over during the first 4 overs. Faulkner then entered the attack and stopped the rampage. With the first ball he bowled, the Aussie picked up the valuable wicket of Murli Vijay for 13 runs. Then Pravin Tambe came to the fore, striking twice in the 10th over to remove in-form batsmen Pietersen and De Kock. At the half way stage, Delhi were 71 for 3.

JP Duminy and Karthik then built a partnership, before Faulkner struck again, picking up Karthik’s wicket in the 16th over. However, this only heralded the arrival of hard hitting KM Jadhav. He helped the Delhi team score 46 runs from just 15 balls. For the second Royals match in a row, the first innings total was 152.

When it came to the Royals turn to bat, Watson and team mentor Dravid decided to send Bhatia in at number 4, ahead of more accomplished batsmen. It proved to be a master stroke. Bhatia’s cross-batted slogs were not pleasing to the cricket purist’s eye, but his stand of 44 runs in five overs with Nair quickly deflated the Daredevils bowling attack.

For once Rajasthan didn’t rely on Ajinkya Rahane, Shane Watson or Stuart Binny to get the required runs. There was a steadying role from Sanju Samson to ensure the middling target was under control. He was ably assisted by Karun Nair, the Karnataka batsman, who was conservative to start with, before opening up in the second half of his innings to hit an unbeaten half-century. The Delhi Daredevils were defeated by seven wickets. Nair won the Man of the Match award for his undefeated 73 runs in 50 balls.

The Royals next opponents were Kolkata Knight Riders at Ahmedabad. Batting first in scorching temperatures, Rajasthan got off to a brilliant start – Rahane and Nair added 52 runs in 39 balls. However, that partnership ended with Rahane being unluckily run-out. Luckily, Samson and Nair continued the onslaught, adding 53 runs for the second wicket. In the 14th over, Nair narrowly missed his half century, falling for 44 as Al Hasan claimed his wicket. Samson, Watson and Binny also made worthwhile contributions – and Bhatia finished the innings with a six to take the Royals total to 171.

When KKR took their turn to bat, 171 seemed well within their compass. Openers Gambhir and Uthappa added 126 runs for the first wicket. The Royals were looking defeat in the face, but skipper Watson refused to give up. He decided to bowl himself and summoned up a remarkable over, getting wickets with his first, third and fifth balls. ‘Watto’ led from the front, and his amazing over precipitated an unprecedented KKR collapse…

The next over was bowled by Pravin Tambe – and it was even more incredible than his captain’s set of six. The first three Tambe balls each yielded a KKR scalp. Overall his over went like this… W(stumped off a wide) – W(c&b) – W(lbw) – 0 – 1 – 1 – 1. It was Tambe’s first hat trick of the season – and what a time to do it!

From 121 for 0, KKR catastrophically subsided to 123 for 6 – fans in the stadium and watching on TV couldn’t believe their eyes. In the end Rajasthan won by 10 runs – and Man of the Match was Pravin Tambe for his brilliant hattrick. He walked out of the ground with a stump as a souvenir and a smile that said it all.

After the party of the KKR victory came the hangover – a 32 run defeat at the hands of the Sunrisers Hyderabad, so the Royals were especially keen to taste victory again when they faced Royal Challengers Bangalore away.

RCB captain Kohli won the toss and chose to bat first. Yuvraj Singh rewarded his skipper’s faith in his batsmen by scoring a scorching 83 runs from just 38 balls, more than compensating for failures with the bat from Kohli and Chris Gayle. AB de V was also on song, joining Yuvraj to build a partnership of 132 runs from 65 balls. Tewatia was the most economical bowler for the Royals, conceding just 17 runs from his 3 overs and picking up a wicket. The Royals were set a tough target of 190 runs

The Rajasthan batsmen started well. Openers Rahane and Nair scored 24 and 56 runs respectively. However, Binny and skipper Watson failed to keep up the momentum – and when Sanju Samson also failed to make it big for the team, it looked like the Royals chase was doomed. However, Australians are famous for a ‘never say die’ attitude, and Faulkner and Steve Smith epitomise that mentality. Facing an ask of 83 runs from 6 overs, the Aussie duo went berserk. The ensuing overs went for 14, 4, 21, 23 and 21 – and somehow the Royals got home with seven balls to spare! Yet again the Royals were confirming their reputation as the most watchable of all T20 teams.

How the Royals could follow that fantastic victory with a limp five wicket defeat to CSK is anyone’s guess – but that’s exactly what they did. Rajasthan’s rollercoaster season seemed to be going from boom to bust on a match by match basis. Taking that into account, it’s perhaps not surprising that in their next two matches they thrashed Delhi Daredevils by 62 runs and then lost to Mumbai by 25 runs. Terrifically entertaining they may have been – but inconsistency was plaguing their season, and threatening their chance of a Play Off place.

With two matches to go, the Royals needed to perform well in both to be guaranteed a high spot in the table. In the first of the two fixtures, Shane Watson asked KXIP to bat first at Mohali after winning the toss. Virender Sehwag came out with destructive intent as he helped plunder 15 runs off the first over of the game. The Indian legend struck three fours and a maximum during his eight-ball innings, but James Faulkner did succeed in removing him in the third over. Shaun Marsh then joined Manan Vohra, and the duo made a fluent start, taking KXIP to 53 for one by the end of the powerplay. However, Vohra (25) was run out a short while later, just when he was looking in good touch.

Meanwhile, Marsh continued to hit the Royals bowlers to all corners of the park. Wriddhiman Saha gave him support as KXIP clocked up 83 runs for the loss of two wickets by the halfway point. The pair then brought up their team’s 100 in the 12th over. However, Marsh fell for 40, courtesy of a run-out, leaving KXIP on 113 for three. Six runs later, Saha also departed, after he holed out to Ajinkya Rahane off Rahul Tewatia.

This brought the hard-hitting David Miller and KXIP skipper George Bailey together. After a cautious start, the duo stepped on the pedal and took the Rajasthan bowlers to the cleaners. They scored 46 runs in the final three overs – including 23 off the 19th over of the innings – to propel the KXIP score to 179 for four. In response the Royals could only muster 163 for eight in their 20 overs. A defeat meant the Royals had to get something from their last match to make it to the Play Offs. Their IPL 2014 season was going to the wire…

The cricketing gods couldn’t have written the script any better. The team they were facing were the other candidates for the final Play Off position – and it was their arch rivals Mumbai Indians. The titanic battle that ensued was one of the most remarkable games in T20 history…

Mumbai won the toss and asked the Royals to take first strike at the Wankhede Stadium. Having lost his skipper early, Sanju Samson made sure he gave his team a solid if unspectacular start. At the half way stage the Royals were only on 59 for 1, but then the young Royals opener stepped on the pedal with Karun Nair. The duo took the Mumbai attack apart, scoring 19, 12, 16, 15 and 13 runs off the next five overs. In the process, both batsmen reached their half-centuries.

Mumbai bowler Jasprit Bumrah ended their 57-ball 100-run stand by claiming the wicket of Nair, leaving Rajasthan on 134 for two after 15 overs. Soon after, Shreyas Gopal removed Samson for 73. This sequence of events brought Brad Hodge and James Faulkner together, and after a couple of quiet overs, they launched a ferocious attack. Thanks to their late onslaught, which produced a total of 46 runs in the final three overs, the Royals were propelled to a huge total of 189 for four. They had one foot in the eliminators…

In order to make the Play Offs, because Rajasthan had a superior run rate in the table, Mumbai needed to get over the line in just 14.3 overs. It was an almost impossible target. Lendl Simmons and Michael Hussey gave them a flying – but brief – start. After adding 19 runs, Simmons was dismissed by Dhawal Kulkarni in the second over. Corey Anderson, who came in at No.3, continued the big hitting. He added 34 runs with Hussey, before the latter was cleaned up by Kevon Cooper in the fifth over. The Royals pacer then got rid of dangerman Pollard for just 7 runs a few deliveries later. Despite losing the three early wickets, Mumbai managed to accumulate 70 runs in the powerplay.

Anderson continued to go after the Royals bowlers, adding 47 runs off 26 balls with Rohit Sharma. When Kulkarni dismissed the MI skipper in the 10th over to leave the home side on 108 for four, the Royals were in the box seat – but no-one could anticipate what was to transpire over the next 4.4 overs…

Anderson and Ambati Rayudu went after the Rajasthan attack with all their might. Scoring boundaries and maximums at a remarkable rate, the duo brought the Play Offs qualification equation down to 20 runs off nine balls. With the crowd on the edge of their seats, Anderson struck two fours off Pravin Tambe, to bring the ask down to 10 runs off three balls from the 14th over.

Shane Watson then handed the ball to Faulkner to bowl that crucial over. Faulks conceded a single off the first ball, leaving Mumbai needing an improbable 9 off two deliveries to grab the Royals place in the Play Offs. Rayudu then stepped up to the plate and dispatched a full-toss over the fence. Now Mumbai needed just two runs off one delivery to qualify. Rayudu struck the ball to mid-off, and he scampered through for a single. An over-throw from Brad Hodge then gave the batsmen the chance to complete the second run and win the game – but Rayudu was run-out going for it and the Royals dugout leapt in jubilation.

However, they had celebrated too soon… there was to be a final twist in the tale of this historic match. As a result of the scores being effectively tied at the end of 14.3 overs, both Mumbai Indians and the Rajasthan Royals had identical net run-rates in the tournament as a whole – unbelievable stuff. It was a cricket statistician’s dream scenario. The mathematicians and umpires came up with fresh calculations, and realised that Mumbai would qualify if they scored at least a four off the next delivery. Faulkner, whose concentration must have been broken by all the confusion of the last few minutes, delivered a leg side full toss and Aditya Tare dispatched the first and only ball he faced over the boundary to seal a Mumbai win and their passage into the Playoffs.

It was an amazing match that thrilled cricket fans all over the world. The Royals had failed to make the semi-finals by the narrowest of margins, but despite that heart break they had played a full part in the most incredible T20 match of all time. Rajasthan Royals could depart the stage with their heads held high. As always, this IPL had confirmed their reputation as a team to watch, win or lose, and that’s why they are many fans’ favourite – or at least second favourite – team!

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