Smith playing a big role in the Rajasthan smithy!

RR mentor Rahul Dravid in the company of the Australian powerhouses James Faulkner, Shane Watson and Steve Smith and Indian hero Ajinkya Rahane.-VIVEK BENDRE

Steve Smith appears to have carried his Australian summer form into the IPL. He captained Rajasthan in the first four matches, while Shane Watson was out injured, and led the team to four straight wins. Watson returned against CSK and Rajasthan notched up a fifth victory in five. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

As Rajasthan Royals took down Mumbai Indians in resounding fashion, Ravi Shastri — back in the commentary box — expressed his honest admiration for Steve Smith. “Somebody asked me how to get Steve Smith out,” he said. “I told him: ‘If you find out, please let me know. We played against him for four months and we couldn’t figure out a way.’”

Smith’s dominance against India was complete — he made 769 runs in the Test series, before that splendid 89-ball-ton in the semifinals of the World Cup. In November, Smith was dropped from the Australian ODI team; five months since, he is a World Cup winner, the team’s one-day captain, and the country’s finest batsman.

He appears to have carried that form into the IPL. Smith captained Rajasthan in the first four matches, while Shane Watson was out injured, and led the team to four straight wins. Watson returned against CSK and Rajasthan notched up a fifth victory in five.

Contributions have come from a number of different players. After the latest win, in searing temperatures in Ahmedabad, Rahul Dravid, the Rajasthan mentor, stated that his side could not do without the efforts of its domestic players. “We need them to play lead roles. We tell them that they have to play lead roles if we are to compete with the Chennais and the Mumbais. We cannot rely on the superstars alone if we are to compete with the big teams,” he said.

While Dhawal Kulkarni and Pravin Tambe set up the win over Sunrisers Hyderabad with their bowling, Deepak Hooda’s whirlwind half-century knocked the stuffing out of Delhi Daredevils. Ajinkya Rahane has been excellent at the top of the order.

What is evident, though, is the contribution of Rajasthan’s Australian imports. James Faulkner delivered the win over Kings XI Punjab with a fine all-round show, while Smith marshalled the run chase against Mumbai, his dismantling of Lasith Malinga a joy to behold. Faulkner performed a key role with the ball against CSK too, before Watson’s knock helped make short work of the target. There were fears that Watson’s return from a hip injury would disrupt the balance of a successful team, but they proved unfounded. “I didn’t ask him, but as a caretaker he did a splendid job,” he said afterwards of taking over the captaincy from Smith. Ahead of the game, Watson had praised Smith’s leadership. “Steve Smith does an incredible job as a leader, he’s technically incredibly good,” he had said. “He did a brilliant job, and I’m very lucky to have him in and around the squad. It’s very lucky Rajasthan have someone of Steve Smith’s quality as a leader but also for his incredible batting skills.”

The Australian influence is not limited to Rajasthan alone. Before the tournament began, as many as 24 Australian players were part of the various IPL squads. Rajasthan had five, CSK two, Punjab four, Delhi three, KKR two, Mumbai three, RCB three and SRH two. These included not just the high-profile figures like Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Johnson, but also unheralded names like Marcus Stoinis and Travis Head.

Three of the eight IPL sides are led by Australians; Indians, in comparison, captain four teams.

“They (Australians) love coming here to play in the IPL and the important thing is that the franchises are willing to pick them. The IPL happens just after the Australian season and so it fits in very well with the schedule and the players come here in form. It’s obviously a good chance to make some money as well,” Mark Taylor told the IPL website recently.

They clearly love it a lot. On the night of Australia’s World Cup win in Melbourne — a night that stretched well into the morning — Darren Lehmann tweeted pictures of euphoric celebrations at the team hotel. The sun had risen and the newspaper arrived, but Lehmann and his players were still at it. In that series of pictures, Steve Smith, James Faulkner and George Bailey are all in the front row, still in their kit, medals around their necks, exulting in delight. Less than two weeks later, Faulkner was dismissing Bailey and not holding back in his jubilation. Mitchell Johnson destroyed Aaron Finch's stumps and leapt in the air in triumph.

Nothing less is expected of professionals, but it demonstrated how much the IPL mattered to Australia’s cricketers.

This has been the case in previous seasons too. From Matthew Hayden to Dirk Nannes, Shaun Marsh to Daniel Christian, Steve Rixon to Tom Moody — Australians have had a big presence in the IPL. Shane Warne perhaps left the biggest footprint of them all. “It was great to see what Warnie did in 2008 and I think it sort of paved the way for the Australians who play in the tournament now,” Taylor pointed out.

“Money is definitely a part of it — the eleven that started Australia’s World Cup opener against England stood to earn a total of more than 9 million Australian dollars from this IPL — and the country continues to produce a steady stream of limited-overs talent.”

Its dominance of one-day cricket means that trend is likely to continue. IPL franchises have had no hesitation in signing performers from the Big Bash League, from Chris Lynn to Andrew Tye. A player like Nannes may not have been greatly regarded in his own country, but he steadily built a reputation in the IPL.

For now, Rajasthan knows it’s in safe hands with Watson and Smith in leadership roles. Its challenge, though, is to sustain this early momentum and win the big moments in the play-offs. It is something the team has struggled to do in previous seasons. After his golden summer, though, Smith may not be prepared to accept failure.