Mumbai: Having been part of Rajasthan Royals' campaign in all six previous editions, including the triumphant one in the inaugural year 2008, star Australia all-rounder Shane Watson feels the Jaipur franchise has its strongest-ever team in the Indian Premier League this season.
"I've got no prediction, apart from (that) we're certainly going to be extremely competitive. We've got, in my thoughts, the strongest squad we've ever had for the Rajasthan Royals. We've got really hard quality options and back-up for every position in our team which we haven't exactly had every year in the past," said Watson in an email interview to PTI about his team's chances in the T20 event starting in the UAE.
However, the 32-year-old Queensland-born stalwart, who will captain the Royals this season, pointed out that with one team less following the exit of Pune Warriors this season, it's going to be an open and exciting tournament.
"But that doesn't certainly guarantee success or any more success than we've had previously because the opposition have got the same thing as well with one less team this year (which) means that there're more hard quality players that are around to better be in every list as well. So I think it's going to be the most toughly fought and evenly fought IPL that's been so far because the quality of players that are in every single squad is pretty amazing," he said.
Watson - who has played 52 Tests, 173 ODIs and 45 T20 Internationals for Australia - said the Royals had some very good players in their ranks with last year's core group having been retained, besides augmenting the side.Watson said the franchise had put behind the controversies involving a few players, who were accused of spot-fixing last year and called the tainted trio's action as "betrayal".
"Absolutely. We put controversies that happened for those three guys, we put that behind us within a week and it was incredible to be able to experience the lows that we did. I've never been involved in an environment where we have felt so betrayed about what happened because we really thought and believed that we are a tight family and to be able to see, I suppose the betrayal of those three guys from what they did," he said.
"But then for us to be able to turn it around like we did within that week, and really galvanised us, it certainly made us an even stronger group than we were previously. So we certainly put that behind us and it's only made us a stronger team."
He was referring to S Sreesanth, Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila, who were arrested for their alleged involvement in spot-fixing, and suspended immediately by the Cricket Board which later banned the first two after a disciplinary hearing.
Chandila's case is still pending before the BCCI.
Asked whether the Royals will be at an advantage or disadvantage with the initial phase being held in UAE because of the general elections that are on in India, Watson said all the teams were faced with the same conditions and the key is to quickly adapt to them.
"Honestly, I don't think that it's going to benefit or hinder our team at all. Everyone's going to be in a similar boat playing in the UAE. Some individuals that played in the UAE are little bit more (used to them) than others, but we're going to have to adapt to the conditions that we see from the start of the two weeks that we tour in the UAE. So I think that every team's going to be just about pretty much in a similar boat," Watson said.
"It's more so how we're able to adapt to the conditions that are there and make up the team, our plans and how we are going to go about it. So I think the team that adapts to those conditions that are there, the quickest will have more success."
Talking about the other teams' strengths, Watson was of the opinion that while two-time champions Chennai Super Kings still looked well-balanced, Sunrisers Hyderabad had picked players in a smart manner in the auction.
"There's no question that Chennai have and will always have a really well-balanced squad. They've got a lot of great Indian players, so that's a brilliant starting point and then they can just complement their overseas players around that as well. They've kept (Dwayne) Bravo as well, so he's done a great job for them," he said. But probably, the one whose team has done the best IPL auction would be the Sunrisers Hyderabad. They were very smart in who they picked up and who they kept as well in the auction. But like I said with the Rajasthan Royals, it doesn't guarantee you success at all. It all depends on how they're all going to bring their group together, how well they are led on and off the field. But they've certainly got a really high quality squad, there's no question about that."
Watson is unsure whether to open the innings with India batsman Ajinkya Rahane, a player he praised sky high and expected to play a key role in the team's success.
"Still not sure whether I'm going to be opening. It just depends on the best make up of our team against different teams as well, what's going to be the best match up so certainly nothing is in concrete at all where anyone in particular is going to bat," he said.
"Ajinkya Rahane is someone who I saw in my touring, I think it was in 2010 where the Australian team played against an Indian 'A' team and from then on I loved exactly what I saw with Ajinkya. He's an incredible player, he plays all around the wicket and since he's come to the Rajasthan Royals as well, it's been good to get to know him as a person. He's a beautiful young guy, he's extremely grounded," Watson said.
"He just loves nothing more than to get out in the middle and bat for long periods of time and the contribution that he's really made to the Rajasthan Royals has been immense. It's great to have him around and continue having him around at the Rajasthan Royals, because he's going to play an integral part again to our success this year.