The Rajasthan Royals, under the guidance of coach Paddy Upton, went into IPL 2015 with a justifiable air of self-confidence. They had been incredibly unlucky not to make the Play Offs in 2014 – surely fortune would be on their side this time round!

The team management didn’t want to rely on luck though – they had significantly boosted their squad. During the Player Auction they spent a staggering Rs.1.40 crore on South African cricketer Chris Morris. The team also added South African bowler Juan Theron as well as Indians Pradeep Sahu and Sagar Trivedi.

Rajasthan were again due to be led into battle by Australia’s swashbuckling all-rounder Shane Watson. If ‘Watto’ was unavailable, he had a fantastic stand in to take up the captaincy role – fellow Aussie Steve Smith. The Royals also had highly rated Indian batsman Ajinkya Rahane to go in at the top of the order. He’d been a consistent performer for the Royals in previous seasons. In Sanju Samson they had a seasoned T20 batsmen who could be relied on to absorb pressure and accelerate the innings when the time was right.

The Rajasthan Royals bowling department comprised James Faulkner, Tim Southee, Kane Richardson and Vikramjeet Malik. Praveen Tambe and Steve Smith would provide options in the spin department. Having competed well in the previous two IPLs, and reached the final of the Champions League in 2013, many pundits had the Royals down as strong contenders to go all the way this time round.

Rajasthan’s first fixture was against Kings XI Punjab in Pune. The Royals batted first, and got off to a poor start. With half the side back in the hut at 75, James Faulkner came in and shared a 51-run stand with U19 player Deepak Hooda to get things back on track. Hooda hit 30 runs off 15 balls. ‘Faulks’ then tore apart fellow Australian Johnson, finally perishing four runs short of a fifty. Steve Smith chipped in with 33 to help Rajasthan end on a competitive 162 for 7.

When Punjab went into bat, the Royals were outstanding in the field. Sanju Samson ran both Saha and Vijay out with direct hits. Tim Southee took a stunning catch to get rid of dangerman Maxwell early on. He also combined with Karun Nair to dismiss Bailey. Faulkner thrived with the ball as well as with the bat, taking 3 wickets. Kings XI never really kept up with the run rate and ended 26 runs short. Rajasthan’s impressive batting, bowling and fielding display meant that Steve Smith, making his captaincy debut, picked up a big win to kick off this Royals IPL campaign in the best way possible.

Rajasthan also won their next match, against Delhi Daredevils, by 3 wickets. The Royals were two for two – but could they win their first three fixtures for the first time in their IPL history? To achieve that feat, they would need to see off old rivals Mumbai Indians, and hopefully exact some revenge for what had happened in the last match of the previous tournament when Mumbai heart breakingly pipped the Royals to the final play off berth.

The match was played at Ahmedabad. Mumbai Indians won the toss and elected to bat, but soon rued their decision. At the half way mark, they were just 45 for 3, although in reality they were four wickets down because Aaron Finch had retired hurt. It was up to Corey Anderson and Kieron Pollard to rescue the visitors. After a consolidation period, both all-rounders hit fifties and their hundred run partnership looked to have changed the balance of the game. The Mumbai total of 164 for 5 would take some beating. Of all the Royals bowlers, Dhawal Kulkarni proved to be the pick of the bunch, with figures of 1 for 15 in his three overs.

Steve Smith again leading the team, played a true captain’s innings en route to an unbeaten 79. Ajinkya Rahane narrowly missed his fifty, falling for 46, but provided great support to his skipper – together they put on 64 runs. When Rahane was dismissed, Faulkner joined Smith and they moulded an unbeaten partnership of 52 to see the team home by 7 wickets. The serenity of Smith was a joy to behold as he calmly compiled the necessary runs. The win hoisted the Royals to top of the IPL standings with three wins and six points – but they weren’t finished yet…

Next up for the Rajasthan Juggernaut, the Sunrisers Hyderabad. Winning the toss, Royals captain Steve Smith decided to bowl first and his decision was justified thanks to the efforts of his bowlers and fielders. An angular delivery by Dhawal Kulkarni to Shikhar Dhawan led to an edge that was superbly taken by Samson. David Warner soon joined his team mate back in the pavilion when he fell short trying to complete a run and Rahane pounced on the opportunity. KL Rahul was next to lose his wicket, when he tried to flick Kulkarni’s ball across the line, but missed his stroke, and was struck on the pad right in front. Royals old boy Naman Ojha and Eoin Morgan added 25 and 27 runs to the scoreboard, before they fell victims to Pravin Tambe. Ravi Bopara and AA Reddy tried to rescue the SRH innings but couldn’t hit enough boundaries against tight bowling. The Sunrisers ended on a mere 127 runs for 5 wickets after 20 overs.

The low target meant that in reply, the Royals could take their time and strive to avoid any unnecessary mistakes as they pursued the total. The openers safely saw their team past half way, Samson departing when the score was 64 for a patient 26 off 30 balls. Ajinkya Rahane continued his fine form scoring his fourteenth IPL fifty, ending with 62 runs off 56 balls. Stuart Binny and James Faulkner then finished the job, seeing the Royals safely home by six wickets.

The Royals next destination was Ahmedabad. Their next Opposition – Chennai Super Kings, their defeated opponents in the 2008 Final. Was it a good omen? Surely Rajasthan Royals couldn’t make it five wins from five?!

The good news kept rolling in – at last Shane Watson was fit to play and captain the side. Chennai won the toss and elected to bat first. They started well, but wickets soon started to fall to the Royals bowlers. Tambe initiated the downfall of the CSK innings by taking down McCullum. Watson rotated the bowlers frequently, ensuring no Super King batsmen would settle. Skipper Watto used seven bowlers in all. T20 batsmen like to “line bowlers up” before attacking them – Watto wasn’t giving them the chance to do that.

The first four CSK wickets fell at regular intervals. However, Bravo (62 not out) and Dhoni (31 not out) steadied the ship and helped CSK reach a competitive score of 156. The Royals batsmen were aware that, on paper, CSK had one of the strongest bowling attacks in the league – but cricket is played on grass, not paper!

Rahane and Watson came to the crease to open the innings and they immediately went on the attack. Whether they intended to put the CSK bowlers so firmly on the back foot as part of a premeditated strategy only they know, but that is exactly what happened. They both powered through their innings – getting their fifties without raising a sweat. The first Royal wicket didn’t fall until the 16th over, with the match effectively won. Watson scored six fours and four sixes in his total of 73. Jink’s narrowly surpassed him with an undefeated 76 as he saw the team over the line in the 18th over. He was given the Man of the Match award for his efforts.

The Royals were riding high at the top of the table. With five wins from their first five matches, they’d achieved the best start possible.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the winning sequence would come to an end, particularly in a sport like T20 where one monumental performance from a player from either team can totally change the course of a match before the opposition gets a chance to recover…

In their next match, against Kings XI Punjab, the Royals batted first and opened up again with Watson and Rahane. Watson struck the first boundary of the innings, but struggled to force the pace through the rest of the initial overs. When the fielding restrictions were relaxed at the end of six overs, Rajasthan had only 43 runs on the board. Watson had scored only 10 off 19 balls, while Rahane had raced to 29 from 17 balls with the help of five boundaries.

Rahane went on to score his third consecutive half-century. The right-hander batted sensibly, and played some crisp strokes without taking any unnecessary risks. He pierced the fields with precision, whipping the ball off his pads and driving through the off-side. Watson made a slow start, but cashed in when Shivam Sharma was introduced into the attack. The Australian hit the off-spinner for three fours and a six, and followed it up with a six off Axar Patel in the next over. He made 45 from 35 balls – during which he hit five boundaries and two sixes – before he was beaten by an arm ball by Axar Patel and was stumped by an alert Wriddhiman Saha.

Deepak Hooda was promoted to number three, and the youngster responded with a nine-ball 19. Karun Nair, batting ahead of James Faulkner, impressed too, scoring 25 off 13 balls. At the other end, Rahane continued to accumulate runs and was eventually dismissed in the eighteenth over – with the score reading 162. ‘Jinks’ tried to chase a wide delivery from Mitchell Johnson, but only managed to feather the ball to the wicket-keeper. He had made 74 from 54 balls and hit six boundaries and two sixes. Stuart Binny and Sanju Samson gave the innings the finishing touches, scoring 17 off six deliveries together as Rajasthan finished their innings at 191 for 6. It was a well above par total and the Royals were confident they could extend their winning streak, but Kings XI had different ideas…

In reply, Punjab were reduced to 59 for 3 in the ninth over, before a 58-run partnership between Marsh and Miller got them into an excellent position. Marsh raced to 50 off 32 balls, and carried on to 65 before he didn’t pick a Pravin Tambe googly and holed out to Rahane at long-on. Miller celebrated his return to the KXIP XI with a stroke-filled half-century, getting to the milestone in 29 balls.

With both batsmen playing an aggressive brand of cricket and finding the boundary frequently, it appeared KXIP would easily chase down the runs. However, they were dismissed and once again the match was in the balance. Marsh went in the 15th over, while Miller (54 from 30 balls, 1 four, 5 sixes) was dismissed in the 18th over with his team still needing 26 from 13 balls. Axar Patel and Mitchell Johnson could only manage 25 runs between them, and incredibly the match ended up tied. Cue the first Super Over of the season… the Royals always keep things interesting!

Chris Morris began the super-over contest by getting David Miller out lbw off the first ball with a straight low full-toss. Shaun Marsh, who was fresh from his scintillating knock of 65 off 40 balls, then creamed three deliveries for fours and at the end of the Super Over the Royals were set a daunting target of 16.

Sadly, Kings XI wrapped up matters with three balls left. Mitchell Johnson dismissed Shane Watson off the first ball with a scorching yorker and then Wriddhiman Saha affected a run-out after James Faulkner missed a slower one. Two wickets – game over. The Kings had broken the Royals’ winning streak, but Rajasthan had nothing to be ashamed about, once again they’d participated in a classic!

The same couldn’t be said for their next match though, as the Royals performed badly for the first time in the tournament and succumbed to RCB by 9 wickets. The following match against KKR was abandoned without a ball being bowled and there was no result in their next match either, when rain intervened to deny the Royals the opportunity to chase down a daunting RCB total of 200 runs.

The defeat and the two wash outs seemed to rock the Royals’ early season momentum. In their next match they lost to the Mumbai Indians thanks to a late order collapse following a fine innings from Sanju Samson. All of a sudden, the league table didn’t look so rosy. Rajasthan needed to get back into winning ways quickly!

To achieve that, they needed to beat Delhi Daredevils at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai. Rajasthan batted first and again owed a debt of faith to their ever reliable opener, Ajinkya Rahane. He started well and as usual never seemed to lose his composure. ‘Jinks’ was well supported by Karun Nair, who came in when Watson was out, and went on to score 61 runs.

Rahane was purring like a sports car engine from early on in his innings, stroking Zaheer Khan through the covers in the fifth over before sending Nathan Coulter-Nile to the leg-side boundary with a flick of the wrists soon after. Rahane was never troubled by seam movement, as he played late and continued to rely on timing over power. The young Indian international reached his half-century off 36 balls, with a sublimely-timed pull for six off Coulter-Nile in the 15th over. Nair sped to the milestone himself two overs later, when he slammed Sandhu over the midwicket boundary, then cracked him for fours off successive balls.

With the score on 149 for 1 after the 17th over, both batsmen launched an all out attack to ensure that the excellent foundation they’d built would become an imposing score. Of all the strokes Rahane hit, the two consecutive lofted straight drives off Zaheer in the 18th over were perhaps the prettiest, so economical was he with his movement.

Nair holed out to deep cover in the penultimate over, but Rahane still had a few big shots in his locker. He whipped Coulter-Nile over long leg for six, then hit another straight four in the final over. ‘Jinks’ finished on an unbeaten 91 – he was the proud wearer of the Orange Cap awarded to the IPL’s leading run scorer.

In reply, the Daredevils got off to a brisk start in their opening overs, but Mayank Agarwal fell to Stuart Binny, then Shreyas Lyer inside edged Shane Watson onto his stumps to leave Daredevils two wickets down in the fifth over. JP Duminy progressed with a measured approach, but his middle-order teammates were more ‘gung ho’ – and suffered the consequences. Yuvraj Singh was out to an outstanding Binny catch on the deep square-leg boundary, and Mathews’ edged behind for 16. With 79 required off the last six overs, the chase was faltering – and it soon became apparent they couldn’t match the Royals total, In the end Delhi fell 14 runs short.

Thankfully, after a longer than anticipated wait, due to the weather as well as strong performances from opponents, Rajasthan’s wins column had another notch at last! With four matches to go, the Royals were still well poised to make the Play Offs, thanks to their blazing start. However, two narrow defeats in their next two matches, against Sunrisers and Chennai, left Royals fans biting their nails once more…

Rajasthan needed a win in in their last round robin match to secure a semi-final berth. Once again their opponents were vying with them for the cherished fourth spot. Surely lightning couldn’t strike twice? After the heartbreak of losing a thriller to Mumbai Indians in 2014, and seeing them waltz through to the semi-finals at their expense, surely in the Royals’ head to head against the Kolkata Knight Riders – the cricketing gods would smile on them this time round?

There is a saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, well it could easily end with the words “… Watto gets going” – because he is a player that thrives on pressure – and this match was all about delivering when it counts. Batting first, the skipper opened up with his regular partner Rahane, and such was the blitzkrieg from the Aussie, the fans in the stadium barely noticed Jinks being dismissed for 37!

Watson scored a spectacular 104 not out from 59 balls to hoist his teams total to 199 – a daunting total for KKR to chase. That they made a good fist of it was down to effective contributions from Pandey, Russel and former Royals hero Yusuf Pathan. However, the Royals attack tightened up when they needed to and the Knight Riders fell nine runs short. Special mention amongst the Rajasthan bowlers should go to Morris, who got 4 wickets for 23 runs and first change Kulkarni with his 2 for 36, including the valuable wickets of Uthappa and Pandey. Not surprisingly Watto received the Man of the Match award – talk about leading from the front!

The Royals had finished fourth, pipping KKR by one point. They’d made it to the cherished play offs!

The first eliminator was against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Pune. Batting first, RCB reached 41 in little time, but then Kulkarni accounted for Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli – the Royals attack sensed blood. They went on the attack, striving for wickets against the powerful Bangalore middle order. However, A B de V and Mandeep Singh fought fire with fire. With eight boundaries, four of them maximums, the South African put the ‘Bang’ into Bangalore and gave their innings an almighty boost. By the time Binny and Faulkner combined to run him out, de Villiers had blasted his way to 66 from 38 balls and the Royals were suddenly second favourites in the contest. Mandeep’s unbeaten fifty cemented that feeling, helping guide RCB to the imposing total of 180 for 4. The Rajasthan batsmen would have to be at the top of their game to reach the target against a well regarded RCB attack.

A good start was definitely required – plus big scores from their star batsmen and worthy contributions from the middle order if required. Unfortunately none of those things came to pass. Only Jinks Rahane seriously troubled the scorers with his patient 42. Watson, Smith, Nair and Hooda all got in, then got out. The rest of the batsmen didn’t reach double figures – and the Royals were all out for a disappointing total of 109.

Another worthy and entertaining campaign had seen the Royals justify the pundits’ pretournament expectation that they would reach the play offs. However, after their scorching and unprecedented start to the tournament, 10 points from the first five fixtures, everyone thought this team was on the verge of something special. The two rained off fixtures halted that early season momentum and the team never really got going again, but the Royals could still depart this IPL proud of some spectacular performances on a team and on a personal level.

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