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This lad from Gwalior had generally batted lower down the order – irrespective of the format and the team he played for. In his previous stints with the Hyderabad franchise, Ankit Sharma had only managed four outings with the bat – not batting higher than No.7 – and bowled a total of 26 overs in 10 matches. It was a surprise, therefore, when he walked out to open the batting against the Chennai Super Kings. But the move worked brilliantly. The youngster, in his first match of the season, outshone his more recognized partner, Shane Watson – and dominated the 60-run partnership. After taking his time to settle down, Sharma struck two beautiful boundaries in the fourth over – first over mid-off and then through extra cover. He then slogged R Ashwin over the mid-on fielder, guided a leg-stump delivery to the fine-leg fence and then deposited one into the stands at midwicket. After that brief cameo – 30 off 27 balls – he came back to do more damage, this time with the ball. He opened the bowling, bowled tidy left-arm spinners, and picked up two huge wickets – Brendon McCullum and Suresh Raina. No other team recognizes the talent and ability in young and budding cricketers and gets more out of them than the Rajasthan Royals. Ankit Sharma’s success against the Chennai Super Kings is yet another case in point.
Naman Ojha | 79* (36 balls) v Kings XI Punjab
With all the damage they’ve done in international cricket, it was obvious that Aaron Finch, Shikhar Dhawan and David Warner would occupy the top three spots in the Sunrisers Hyderabad batting line-up. However, when that strategy didn’t work out too well, the team split up the big three and made room for others to bat one-drop. And Naman Ojha seems to have made the most of that opportunity. After the openers had seen the team off to a rollicking start against Kings XI Punjab, Ojha walked out to bat in the ninth over and ensured the pressure remained on the KXIP bowlers. The 30-year-old made some smart choices during his unbeaten knock of 79; early on, he picked on the weak links in the KXIP bowling line-up (the inexperienced Shivam Sharma and Akshar Patel – scoring three sixes and two fours off the duo). Once he was seeing the ball nicely, even Sandeep Sharma – the spearhead of the KXIP bowling attack – wasn’t spared; two full-tosses were deposited to the point boundary and two deliveries were sent into the stands. Just how good was he? While he scored 79 runs at one end, the batsmen at the other end – despite facing just as many deliveries as Ojha – could muster only 52 runs.
Manan Vohra | 47 (20 balls) v Sunrisers Hyderabad
It was a surprise to many when Kings XI Punjab announced prior to the season that they were retaining only two players – one of who was Manan Vohra. However, when Vohra’s name did not figure in KXIP’s playing XI in the early part of the season, many started to question the rationale behind retaining him. The 20-year-old got his first opportunity against Sunrisers Hyderabad. One can only imagine the pressure the kid would have faced when he walked out to bat. It was, therefore, quite the spectacle to see him come out and perform the way he did. Asked to open the innings in a chase of 206, Vohra lost his opening, Virender Sehwag, in the first over. But that did not deter him or slow him down. He announced himself with a spectacular pull shot – off the world’s best bowler, Dale Steyn. He repeated the act, in the ninth over, when he picked a slower one early, got into position, and deposited the ball into the stands at midwicket. Vohra’s innings was not all about power; he also picked the gaps in the field, often using the pace of the ball and giving it great direction. He looked set for a big score when he was run-out in an unfortunate manner; the bowler got a touch to a straight drive from Glenn Maxwell and guided the ball back onto the stumps with Vohra short of his crease. Such was Vohra’s innings that it left many wondering why he was left to warm the benches until then.
Sanju Samson | 40 (25 balls) v Delhi Daredevils
Just how good is Sanju Samson? One just had to see the teenager’s three sixes in the match against the Delhi Daredevils. That the young lad has a sound technique and good temperament is well documented. Those three hits were evidence that he has a sharp eye, good footwork, a still head, the gift of timing and power in his arms. The first hit, off Manoj Tiwary, gave us a glimpse into his footwork. Just after the bowler had released the ball, Samson danced down the track, got beside the line of the ball, made contact with it, went through the shot and sent it into orbit. The next shot was pure timing; Siddarth Kaul gave the batsman just enough width to free his arms. Samson, gauging that he had enough width to play his stroke and that the ball was in his arc, stood still, played through the line and the bat swing was sweet enough to deposit the ball into the stands at long-off. Later in the same over, this time when the bowler attempted a short delivery, Samson stood tall in the crease and flat-batted it over the bowler straight into the sightscreen – making it to appear like he’d just played a tennis forehand. The 19-year-old has been entertaining with cameos and played shots that have left audiences spellbound. It is about time he converts those cameos and starts winning games on his own.
He no longer wears the captain’s hat, but Rahul Dravid, in his new role as the Rajasthan Royals mentor, has been as busy shaping the team’s fortunes just like when he was playing. After leading his team to the Playoffs in Pepsi IPL 2013, he is now helping them go the extra mile and lift the trophy in 2014.
While he continues to engage with the younger cricketers, the hardworking and diligent former captain can be seen making notes on the white boards, operating the bowling machine as he wholeheartedly works with the support staff in preparing the team for the contests.
Speaking about his role, Dravid said that it is about ensuring an environment which empowers the players to make informed decisions and back themselves on the field. While speaking to IPLT20.com about his role and the team, he elaborated on the meticulous planning and strategising that goes into preparing the Royals. He also lauded Shane Watson’s leadership and spoke about RR’s fighting brand of cricket.
Excerpts from his exclusive interview:
How different is your new role as the mentor of RR?
The pressure is lot less because I don’t captain the team. It is about strategy and planning. It involves working with the likes of Paddy Upton, Zubin Bharucha and Monty Desai, and trying to create a good environment for the players so they get what they need. And in the end, they have to do their job to perform in the middle. So we just try and create a good environment and give them a chance to perform and play at their best. And we do lot of the planning and preparation for them, so they have enough information when they go into the game. It gives them the best chance to succeed.
We see more and more careful strategising in T20. What is your view on that?
It was always going to be important in T20 cricket because every over matters a lot. An over or two can actually cost you a game of T20. So you have to be switched on with your plans and you have to ensure that you have most of your strategies worked out. They don’t always work, but that’s the way the game goes. You can have the best of plans, but in the end, it is about execution. Most teams have plans and ideas, but it is the execution of those plans and skills that finally wins you games. So our job is also to ensure how we can help our players execute their skills better.
Rajat Bhatia spoke about the emphasis on smart cricket in RR, which helped you win against Kolkata Knight Riders in UAE. Can you elaborate?
In the end, you have to empower players to make decisions on their own. They are in the middle and they have to make choices and decisions. All we tell them is to make smart decisions and back themselves to execute those decisions. It may not always work and we may not always succeed, but as long as our players are making the right choices with the bat or the ball, or at least the right choices in their opinion, there is a logical thinking behind the decisions that they are making in the middle. That might not always work out, but at least you have to give yourself the best chance to succeed. You have to play to your strengths. If you have a particular shot, at least back yourself under pressure to hit that or go after the ball that you are most comfortable with under pressure and you have practiced. It is just simple stuff that we discuss.
Can you throw light on the meticulous planning in RR?
We do recognise that we are not necessarily a team of stars and we don’t have the big players, so we know that we have to get the best out of all our young players. So a lot of thought goes into how we prepare and practice for each and every game. There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes; people like Zubin, Monty and Paddy are just ensuring that we give the guys very good practice sessions, which are interesting and exciting. But we also prepare them for the game and try to simulate what they might experience in the match. As far as possible, we try and do that. We try and ensure that we don’t over-complicate it. We try and keep things as simple as possible, so the instructions are clear and it just allows the players to go out and express themselves.
RR players have always spoken about role clarity. How are the roles chalked out specifically for each player?
Roles are important. We do explain them to the players. We sit down with the players at the start of every season and tell them why they are in this team and what we think their roles would be. Of course, there needs to be certain amount of flexibility, but still we explain to them where exactly they might be batting and bowling and what they should practice and how we feel they should practice. So at least we are giving them that information about what their roles might be in this team and how they should go about executing those roles. And then it is up to them – they have to do the difficult part, which is executing the skills.
How do you plan for powerplays and death overs?
It is the most challenging part of the game – the first six overs and the last five overs. It can sometimes cost you. We keep working on it. Our strategy always changes depending on the team we are playing against. We can’t complicate it too much by thinking that we have a master plan or a master strategy. I don’t think anybody really has that. The kind of players you have, if they can execute the sort of money-ball or yorker well under pressure, then that is what wins you games. If the yorker becomes a full-toss, that’s a six depending on the quality of batsman at the other end. Sometimes, it is not that the strategy is wrong, but the execution is. So you need to be careful there, and sometimes, not only focus on strategy, but also on the execution of the skill.
You have always made the most of the resources available to you. What are your methods?
We believe we need to create a very good environment; we also need to be well prepared and well planned. We need to make people feel that they are important to us, irrespective of who they maybe. You never know when somebody might be needed to play crucial role in a match. Of course, we have the big stars and the big players, but we always make the other guys understand that they have very big roles to play as well. And because we don’t have a lot of Indian stars and have young Indian players in our side, it is all the more reason for us to actually make them believe that they are actually an integral part of our team and they play key roles at various stages in the game. We are not a team that will rely on one or two people to win us games. We are the kind of team that will have many contributors during the course of a tournament. And that’s the way we like it. We know that if we are to compete with some of the big teams, we need lot of people to contribute; just one or two guys are not going to do it for us. So the whole process is about empowering these young players and giving them the confidence and belief that they are as good as anyone under pressure.
How has the IPL evolved in terms of competition and innovations?
It’s a fantastic tournament. There is tough competition. Every side is tough. Even though some of the teams are not winning as much, there are some very good players in them. Every game is tough and you have to be well prepared and switch on for every contest, because if you are not, you could easily be beaten.
How have you groomed Shane Watson for captaincy?
I don’t think you need to groom Watto. I think he’s been a fantastic captain. Both on and off the field, he has been superb. He connects really well even with the Indian boys. He obviously connects with the overseas players. But I am impressed with the way he has connected with so many of the Indian players. He is obviously very respected. He is very approachable. People feel very relaxed around him; they feel they can approach him when needed. And on the field as well, tactically he has been very good. So I think he has been a really good captain and the results have shown.
What do you tell the players when they are taking the field?
If you try telling people something at the last moment, you know you have lost them. Last moment is not meant to say anything, but to just keep quiet and let them do what they want. A lot of the preparation happens a lot before. On the day of the game, honestly, we don’t do much. We just let people be and let them play their game. There is not much to tell. If they have prepared well and practiced well and if they feel confident about their game and they have got clear plans, clear roles and clear strategies, they will go out there and be able express themselves. You can’t give pep talks. I personally don’t believe in pep talks and speeches and those things. We don’t do any of that here. If anyone needs a pep talk and speech at the last minute, well then he is at the wrong place.
What has set RR apart from the rest of the teams?
I think there is the RR brand of cricket, which is a fighting brand of cricket. We get different people to perform. We don’t rely on a few stars. People who play against us know that we will always fight. We might not win every game, but we will always fight and compete. We will get the best out of our talent. I think that is something that you could classify as RR, and probably call it the RR brand of cricket.
RR is almost through to the Playoffs for the second consecutive season. With their consistent performances, they really aren’t underdogs.
If you look at our team on paper, you would call us underdogs. I would if I looked at the paper and looked at some of the teams we have come up against, because we don’t have those stars. But we don’t mind the tag. It doesn’t bother us anymore. We know every team is a good team and we have to perform. We don’t think too far ahead. This competition is still open and we know we have to play very good cricket in the next three games and then look at the Playoffs once we get there.