There was intent in everything Rajasthan Royals did on Saturday (April 20).
It began with changing their captain from Ajinkya Rahane to Steve Smith a couple of hours before their must-win match against Mumbai Indians. Irrespective of whether the decision was right or wrong – especially considering Smith will not be available for the entire tournament – there was no questioning the intent. Royals were going nowhere under Rahane, with just two wins from eight matches.
Smith, on the other hand, had 16 wins from 24 matches as IPL captain. Even if Smith could inspire his side for a few games before flying to Australia, he would have done his job.
Smith did just that, leading from the front with the bat, staying unbeaten on 59 off 48 to guide Royals in a tricky chase of 162 on a turning track.
Smith came into the game with a total of 186 runs from seven matches, with a highest of an unbeaten 73 and a strike rate of 108. There was ‘rusty’ written all over his batting; he struggled for any sort of flow. It didn’t help that he batted at No. 4 in a couple of matches, and was even left out of the side for the last game against Kings XI Punjab. The injured elbow was hurting him – Smith, who already isn’t known as a power-hitter, couldn’t find his timing. Why, he couldn’t even throw over-arm, thus forcing him to field inside the ring.
The fielding position didn’t change against Mumbai, but the timing for sure did.
Smith walked in to bat, ironically replacing Rahane in the middle, with Royals already in good flow at 39 in 3.4 overs. Sanju Samson was giving them a quick start at the other end, and Smith had to ensure they kept the momentum. It was crucial given they had no Jos Buttler.
It took only four balls to see Smith’s intent. Smith got going slashing Lasith Malinga for two fours in the sixth over, piercing the gap between backward point and third man to perfection. It took Royals to 60 for 1 at the end of Power Play – a much needed quick start given batting would get tougher as the game went on.
It didn’t take too long to see why Royals had no option but to get a quick start in the Power Play. Rahul Chahar got Samson and Ben Stokes in the eighth over, leaving Royals 77 for 3.
Smith had already raced to 25 off 15 at that point, but had to re-assess the situation. With Stokes gone, Smith was the only experienced batsman left. The names to follow were 17-year-old Riyan Parag, Stuart Binny playing just his second match, followed by bowling all-rounders Jofra Archer and Shreyas Gopal.
Smith rose to the situation, along with young Parag. The duo scored only one boundary between overs 9.1 and 13.3; Smith was slowing down, while Parag scored 17 off his first 16 balls.
The nature of the track and the quality of death bowlers they possessed meant Mumbai would have felt they were in the game, but Parag took over the role of aggressor while Smith looked to bat through. The gear-shift happened when Parag hit Hardik Pandya for a couple of boundaries in the 14th over, following it up with a six off Chahar and a four off Malinga in the next two overs.
Parag raced to 41 off 27, and Royals needed just 25 off 24. Teams have lost from such positions this season, and Royals too faced some nervy moments when Parag was run out and Ashton Turner fell for a first-ball duck.
However, they had captain Smith to guide them home.