IPL 2018: RR, the return of the desert fox!

True to its reputation, the Rajasthan Royals outfit led by Ajinkya Rahane strikes a perfect balance between star power and youth.

With Steve Smith having been expelled, Ajinkya Rahane is captain in Rajasthan Royals’ comeback season in the IPL. Figuratively, he now has to bat for two people rather than one.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Steven Smith’s one-year suspension for being involved in ball-tampering episode has hit Rajasthan Royals hard. The franchise, which had named Smith as its skipper, had to quickly get the house in order to get ready for the Indian Premier League (IPL) on time.

It decided to elevate loyal Royal, Ajinkya Rahane, to fill in for Smith. And a side that is led by the Mumbai batsman and has heavyweights like Ben Stokes and Jos Butler in its ranks, has to be taken seriously.

WATCH: Rajasthan Royals, the first champion!

And, it is for this that Rajasthan Royals — which returns to the IPL fold after a two-year suspension — is being considered one of the major title contenders of the tournament.

True to its reputation, the Rajasthan outfit strikes a perfect balance between star power and youth.

While the side was heavily banking on the experience of Australian skipper Smith, the onus will now be on Rahane to step up and deliver. Just like Smith, even Rahane has a clear understanding of the expectations and that would certainly help him deliver the goods.

Captain, Ajinkya Rahane, says: "I feel we are a stronger and balanced squad with the right mix of experienced and new players. I have met some of the boys at practice and I feel that we do have a stable and solid squad with each player ready to play his specific role and contribute towards the team goals. The competition is definitely tough and we need to be tougher."

 

The inclusion of Stokes—the costliest player in the tournament—certainly gives the Royals an edge over others. The England all-rounder was instrumental in helping Rising Pune Supergiant reach the final last season - 309 runs and 12 wickets in 12 matches - and although he has had troubles off the field lately, he will be expected to play a pivotal role in Royals' campaign.

If Stokes’ inclusion is a major development, eyebrows were raised when the franchise bought pacer Jaydev Unadkat for a whopping Rs. 11.5 crore, the highest for an Indian. It’s true that Unadkat had a great outing with Rising Pune Supergiant last season, but in a fast and furious format like the IPL, Royals will have to ensure that the Saurashtra medium-pacer remains fit and maintains form.

While it splurged heavily on Stokes and Unadkat, Royals also brought in domestic talents — Rahul Tripathi and Shreyas Gopal to bolster the line-up. It also ensured that the old boys like Sanju Samson and Stuart Binny were brought on board to get the core team right.

But then, there remains a bit of doubt over the availability of Jofra Archer. The West Indian all-rounder suffered an injury in the Pakistan Super League—which eventually ruled him out of the tournament— but the Royals remain confident of his availability.

READ: Klaasen replaces Smith at Rajasthan Royals

The fact that it has brought back its former captain Shane Warne as the mentor will certainly give the team management a sigh of relief. In the past, Warne had the reputation of bringing out the best out of the young guns, and Royals would want him to do the same this time too.

With a balanced side, the band of boys would be hoping to make some noise when it returns to the old home base — the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur.

Player to watch out for

Ben Stokes

When the England all-rounder joined the IPL bandwagon last season — for Rising Pune Supergiant — not many were optimistic of his success. But Stokes emerged as one of the best performers of the season — helping Pune reach the final.

Expensive buys: The explosive England all-rounder Ben Stokes was the most expensive player to be sold at the IPL Auction 2018. Jaydev Unadkat (above) was the costliest Indian.   -  AP

 

So, this time, when Stokes takes the field for his new franchise, the expectations will be higher. Having the experience of playing in crunch situations, Stokes can change the course of the game. And, he would certainly be the major player for the Royals. But then, he has not played too many T20s lately, and his form could be a concern.

Squad: Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Stuart Binny, Ben Stokes, Sanju Samson, Jos Buttler, Rahul Tripathi, D’Arcy Short, Jofra Archer, Gowtham Krishnappa, Dhawal Kulkarni, Jaydev Unadkat, Ankit Sharma, Anureet Singh, Zahir Khan Pakteen, Shreyas Gopal, M. S. Midhun, Prashant Chopra, Ben Laughlin, Mahipal Lomror, Jatin Saxena, Aryaman Vikram Birla, Heinrich Klaasen and Dushmanta Chameera.

Mentor: Shane Warne

Batting coach: Amol Muzumdar

Spin bowling coach: Sairaj Bahutule

Director of cricket operations: Zubin Bharucha