PREVIEW: After David Warner returned to the IPL with a half-century against Kolkata Knight Riders on Sunday, it will be Steve Smith's time to return to action when the Rajasthan Royals take on Kings XI Punjab in Jaipur at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium on Monday (March 25). Beyond that mini talking point, Monday's clash is one between two sides known for inconsistency. Punjab are one of the underachievers in the tournament, having made the final only once. Rajasthan have tapered off after the first season and haven't reached the final since. These are sides that have often taken the lower half of the points table.
However, both Punjab and Rajasthan have never stopped trying. They've tinkered around with their combinations continuously and finally seem to have arrived at squads that could go the distance. There were hints in the last season too. Rajasthan made it to the top four while Punjab finished in the bottom half after a promising start. The biggest reason for that was a poor middle order and lack of depth after Chris Gayle and KL Rahul. Punjab have got the big-hitting Nicholas Pooran for this season and how he goes in the middle order could prove vital to their chances. Their top order will once again be their biggest hope considering the lack of all-rounders apart from Sam Curran; Gayle, Rahul and Mayank Agarwal need to fire if Punjab are to go deep. Punjab's bowling has got plenty of 'mystery' about it with the addition of Varun Chakravarthy to go with Mujeeb Ur Rahman and captain R Ashwin. Their pace unit has Andrew Tye, the highest wicket taker last season, as well as Mohammed Shami and Ankit Rajpoot.
Rajasthan's bowling strength lies in their pace. Jofra Archer, Oshane Thomas, Varun Aaron and Jaydev Unadkat are all good options for a ground that's known to assist pace. Shreyas Gopal and Ish Sodhi are underrated but useful legspinners, while K Gowtham did a decent job with his off-spin last year. The batting has plenty of firepower in Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, and now also has solidity in Steve Smith. Captain Ajinkya Rahane too will hope to improve on his strike-rate, which was slightly on the low side last season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Rahane: The Rajasthan captain had a forgettable season last year, struggling to up the ante with his strike-rate. He even had to push himself down the order as Buttler and D'Arcy Short provided quicker starts. Rahane believes he has a chance of making it to the World Cup if he has a good IPL. The other batsmen in the line up - Smith, Stokes and Buttler - could leave early due to international assignments/World Cup preparation, and Rahane's role could prove more vital.
Chris Gayle: The universe boss is in stunning hitting form. Ask England. He has already announced his retirement from ODIs after the World Cup, and is perhaps on his last legs in T20 cricket too. Irrespective of what his future is, his form is key to Punjab's chances. No batsman has more IPL centuries than Gayle, and a few more this season will boost Punjab.
TEAM NEWS/AVAILABILITY UPDATES
Punjab: David Miller will miss the game as he's in South Africa featuring in the T20I series against Sri Lanka. Nicholas Pooran could make his IPL debut. Andrew Tye is yet to join the squad. Varun missed the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy recently due to a shoulder injury and might not be available to play immediately.
Rajasthan: Steve Smith had an elbow injury recently, but seems to have recovered completely. He has been training with the Rajasthan squad over the last one week and should be available from the first game.
Rajasthan: Ajinkya Rahane, Jos Buttler, Steve Smith, Sanju Samson, Ben Stokes, Rahul Tripathi/Stuart Binny, K Gowtham, Jofra Archer, Shreyas Gopal, Jaydev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni/Varun Aaron.
Kings XI Punjab: KL Rahul, Chris Gayle, Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair/Sarfaraz Khan, Mandeep Singh, Nicholas Pooran, R Ashwin, Sam Curran, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Ankit Rajpoot, Mohammed Shami.
Rajasthan Royals: Ajinkya Rahane(capt), Steven Smith, Jos Buttler, Sanju Samson, Prashant Chopra, Manan Vohra, Aryaman Birla, Rahul Tripathi, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Stuart Binny, Shreyas Gopal, Krishnappa Gowtham, Shashank Singh, Liam Livingstone, Shubham Ranjane, Ashton Turner, Riyan Parag, Mahipal Lomror, Ish Sodhi, Jaydev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni, Varun Aaron, Oshane Thomas, Sudhesan Midhun.
Kings XI Punjab: Ravichandran Ashwin(capt), Lokesh Rahul, Chris Gayle, Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair, David Miller, Mandeep Singh, Simran Singh, Nicholas Pooran, Sarfaraz Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Murugan Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Andrew Tye, Ankit Rajpoot, Hardus Viljoen, Arshdeep Singh, Moises Henriques, Varun Chakravarthy, Sam Curran, Darshan Nalkande, Agnivesh Ayachi, Harpreet Brar.