Ben Stokes, Steven Smith, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer.
As far as overseas foursomes go, there are few more loaded combinations in the IPL. As far as weight of team workload is concerned, there are, perhaps, no combinations as skewed as this one.
And yet, despite having featured together in the majority of Rajasthan Royals' games since the start of IPL 2019, Friday evening at Abu Dhabi was the first time that RR had each one of Stokes, Smith and Buttler scoring more than 20 runs in the same game, to go with Archer picking up two wickets.
For a side as overly dependent on its overseas contingent, it makes sense that the Royals started the day at joint-bottom of the points table " Archer aside, their quartet had been rather quiet all season.
Stokes, prior to his jaw-dropping match-winning century against Mumbai Indians on Sunday, had returned 110 runs off 103 balls in his first five outings; Smith, after starting the season with back-to-back fifties at Sharjah, had managed all of 157 runs off 159 balls in the last 10 games; Buttler, he with eight 50s in his last 14 innings for the Royals coming into IPL 2020, had crossed 25 only twice in 12 matches. And Archer's impact, even as he breathed constant fire, was negated by the toothlessness of the rest of the bowling attack.
And here they were, the Royal quartet, in a must-win clash, against the most in-form team of the tournament (five wins in a row), and everyone turned up. Archer and Stokes, together, gave away only 58 runs from eight overs, while picking up all four KXIP wickets to fall; the remaining 12 overs went for 126. With bat in hand, Stokes pummelled a 26-ball 50 in an opening partnership of 60 runs (in 5.3 overs), and Smith and Buttler's finishing flourish " an unbeaten stand of 41 runs, off just 19 balls " could yet prove to be an NRR-shifter of enormous proportions.
" Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) October 30, 2020
What a star-turn it's been for Stokes in particular in the last two games, both of which were must-win encounters for Rajasthan. England's man for all seasons had been forced to have a delayed entry into the IPL bubble owing to personal difficulties; post arrival, he had barely managed to score at a run-a-ball, with no sixes from 103 deliveries, and bowled eight wicketless overs at an economy of 10.25. In the last two outings, Stokes has shellacked 157 runs off just 86 balls, laced with 20 fours and six sixes, and also kept KXIP in check with a spell of 2/32.
It has formed the backbone of RR's two most impressive showings since the first two games of the season, which had seen them take the tournament by storm at Sharjah.
Rajasthan's scores, in the first and last two games of this campaign so far, read thus: 216/7, 226/6 in 19.3 overs, 196/2 in 18.2 overs and 186/3 in 17.3 overs. Four wins in four, with a scoring rate of 10.94 per over and an average of 45.78 runs per wicket.
In the nine games sandwiched between these four displays, the Royals scored at 7.60 per over and returned 21.15 runs per wicket " and managed just one victory.
The only constant performer in these four standout performances is the sole constant in the RR setup, outside of the overseas quartet: Sanju Samson. And how incredibly weird a season he's having!
First two matches: 159 runs off 74 balls. Next nine matches: 113 runs off 102 balls. Last two matches: 102 runs off 56 balls. That's four matches where he's plundered 261 runs, averaging 65 runs per knock while making two runs a ball " and you get the trend by now: all four have resulted in RR wins.
With these two late-season performances " three-in-a-row, if you consider his 26-ball 36 versus Sunrisers Hyderabad " Samson has also managed to distance himself from a rather disturbing trend he's harboured in recent seasons: In 2017, his first two games fetched 114 runs, and next 12 only 272; in 2018, he tallied 178 runs in the first three games and 263 in the next 12; in 2019, 132 runs from the first two games were followed by 210 from the next 10.
Perhaps Samson, and the eccentricities of his numbers, best epitomises this Rajasthan Royals team " lo-and-behold, the mercurial men of the IPL. You long for them to do well, because when they do, they look nothing short of a billion bucks¦ you get used to periods of mediocrity, come to accept frustration as the norm¦ and then, just when you're ready to give up hope, they come out all-guns-blazing and have you rapt in attention once more.
From sizzle to fizzle to sizzle again: that's the story of Rajasthan Royals, as indeed the story of Sanju Samson. Can sizzling Samson and the awesome foursome fire the mercurial men of the IPL into the playoffs? If not anything else, at least they've ensured a weekend that's going to keep everyone glued to the action " a Super Sunday, which will end with Rajasthan Royals versus Kolkata Knight Riders in a potential fourth-spot decider. Strap in!