It’s Virat Kohli vs Steven Smith time at IPL 2020. A contest that is bound to dominate sports pages, web pages and social media over the next three months when India tour Australia. Part of this season’s first double-header, Saturday’s afternoon clash in Abu Dhabi between the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Rajasthan Royals, however, promises to be a relatively milder prelude. At stake, though, is the No. 1 spot in the points table, a position neither side has been in too often.
Both teams are into only their fourth game this season, but the mood is contrasting in the two camps: the Royal Challengers are coming off a Super Over win against the Mumbai Indians; the Royals off a pounding at the hands of the Kolkata Knight Riders. For a change, Kohli’s men appear settled combination-wise, but will have to answer one burning question: how much workload is too much workload for AB de Villiers?
Three nights ago, de Villiers struggled with cramps and dehydration, after having batted for the majority of the Royal Challengers’ innings and then keeping wickets for 20 overs. With an afternoon start in Abu Dhabi, it remains to be seen if head coach Simon Katich and Kohli will want to free him up of the wicketkeeping duties. If they do think on those lines, Gurkeerat Singh, who didn’t bat or bowl in his first and only outing of the season so far, against the Mumbai Indians, may have to make way for specialist wicketkeeper-batsman Parthiv Patel.
The Royals struggled so badly against the Knight Riders, the former’s first game outside Sharjah, two nights ago that questions were immediately raised over batting positions of key players. Smith hasn’t done too badly at the top, but that has meant Robin Uthappa, someone they went big on at the auction, has batted in the middle order or lower-middle order despite having much of his IPL success as a top-order batsman. With Sanju Samson settled at No. 3, it could be interesting to see if the team decides to push Uthappa up or rejig the middle order, with Smith continuing to open. Despite Rahul Tewatia’s new-found stardom, the lower-middle order looks shaky. Riyan Parag seems short on confidence, and the batting beyond No. 5 looks brittle.
But the Royals have still got two wins in the bag, so not all is doom and gloom yet. They bundled out the Royal Challengers for 70 the only time these two sides faced each other in the UAE in 2014. Last year, Shreyas Gopal, the legspinner, picked up a hat-trick, including the wickets of Kohli and de Villiers, to take his side to an impressive win. As such, Kohli vs Smith and Kohli vs Jofra Archer, who has been consistently clocking 150kph this season, promise a fascinating subplot to the bigger picture. Kohli must be hurting after a slow start to his campaign, with scores of 14, 1 and 3 and must be itching to break the shackles. Can the Royals stop him?
In the news
Chris Morris seems to be recovering well from his side strain but the Royal Challengers aren’t fully sure if he is ready yet. They didn’t train on Friday, which means a decision has been made either way. If he plays, he could come in for Adam Zampa or Isuru Udana.
The Royals have no injury concerns to speak of, but have to address their lower-order batting woes. They could consider shoring it up by including Manan Vohra or Shashank Singh in place of the out-of-form Parag. Vohra is a proper top-order batsman, while Singh offers some offspin in addition to his lower-order hitting.
Royal Challengers Bangalore: 1 Devdutt Padikkal, 2 Aaron Finch, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 AB de Villiers, Gurkeerat Singh/Parthiv Patel, 6 Shivam Dube, 7 Chris Morris/Isuru Udana, 8 Washington Sundar, 9 Navdeep Saini, 10 Yuzvendra Chahal, 11 Adam Zampa
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Jos Buttler (wk), 2 Steven Smith (capt), 3 Sanju Samson, 4 Robin Uthappa, 5 Manan Vohra/Riyan Parag, 6 Rahul Tewatia, 7 Shreyas Gopal, 8 Tom Curran, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Jaydev Unadkat, 11 Ankit Rajpoot
It’s not really a punt, because Kohli’s apparent struggle against legspin seems to have become a bit of an issue. He was out to wristspinner Rahul Chahar in the previous game. The Royals have two such bowlers to unleash: Gopal, who has dismissed Kohli every single time they’ve played against each other, and Tewatia. Gopal has dismissed Kohli thrice and de Villiers four times. Abu Dhabi’s relatively bigger ground dimensions should also help Smith bring Gopal on when the Royal Challengers are looking for middle-overs impetus through Kohli and de Villiers.
Seventy-one percent of the Royal Challengers’ runs have been scored by the openers this season. So far, they’re yet to be troubled by genuine pace with the new ball. Archer hit 150kph repeatedly against the Knight Riders to keep Sunil Narine and Shubman Gill quiet. The Royals have so far picked up only one wicket in the powerplay, so perhaps there’s a case for Smith to keep Archer on for longer – possibly bowl three out of his four – in the first six overs and have Tom Curran operate in the death overs. Archer has so far conceded at only five an over in the five powerplay overs he has bowled.
Stats that matter
Aaron Finch is the only opener who hasn’t been dismissed in the powerplay so far this season.
Rajpoot is one wicket away from 100 T20 scalps.
Since 2018, Jos Buttler’s strike rate of 157 in the IPL is the highest among all openers who have scored at least 500 runs.
In the Royal Challengers’ last ten wins, de Villiers has eight half-centuries. He was unbeaten in five of those.