The Australian batsman returns to the IPL after a one-year absence for his role in the ball-tampering saga that erupted in South Africa exactly a year ago.
With David Warner marking his return to the competition with a sparkling half-century against Kolkata Knight Riders on Sunday, all eyes will be on how Smith goes in his IPL comeback.
Smith’s return bolsters an already impressive overseas contingent for the Royals who also have Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Ish Sodhi and Liam Livingstone. There is also big-hitting Ashton Turner who made waves in the recent ODI series against India but the Australia dasher is currently away on international duty in the UAE.
The Royals will bank on Buttler who almost single-handedly dragged them to the play-offs last season after smashing 548 runs at an average of nearly 55. The puzzle for skipper Ajinkya Rahane is how to juggle his overseas option with just four slots available in the playing XI.
While they have an abundance of talent in the foreign department, the same cannot be said for Rajasthan’s domestic contingent and they will need Rahane to stand up and deliver after an indifferent campaign in 2018.
Along with Rahane, Royals will be hoping Sanju Samson and Jaydev Unadkat come good this edition.
For Kings XI Punjab, Ravichandran Ashwin and his men will have to be mindful of the side’s previous track record at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur. The Mohali franchise have so far lost all five past encounters against Rajasthan at the venue but they do have cause for optimism with Windies veteran Chris Gayle coming into the tournament on the back of some scorching form.
The explosive southpaw marked his return to international cricket recently with a stupendous display against England in the ODI series where he smashed 424 runs in four innings while striking a staggering 39 sixes in total.
Gayle’s partnership at the top with KL Rahul will remain central to Kings XI’s plans once again but they will need someone else from the middle-order to step up given their extreme dependence on the openers in 2018.
One man that Kings XI will be hoping can end their middle-order woes is Nicholas Pooran with the West Indies batsman coming in with a reputation of being one of the cleanest hitters in T20 cricket.
However, Ashwin will need to take a tough call on whether to play Pooran or England all-rounder Sam Curran who was the most expensive purchase in the IPL auction.
With the ball, Punjab have a decent unit at their disposal with Andrew Tye, Mujeeb ur Rahman and Ashwin leading the attack while India pacer Mohammed Shami has also been added to the roster.
However, one Kings XI bowler in particular will be in greater focus than the others on Monday and that man is Varun Chakravarthy. The unheralded mystery spinner was the star attraction at the IPL auction and it will be interesting to see what the 27-year-old brings to the table.
Last year, Ashwin’s men started strongly before tailing off towards the latter stages of the competition and ultimately finishing seventh. They have gone in with a completely new management for 2019 with former Blackcaps coach Mike Hesson coming in and they will be hoping the shake up can ignite their quest for a maiden IPL title.
Rajasthan Royals: Ajinkya Rahane (c), Jos Buttler (wk), Steve Smith, Sanju Samson, Rahul Tripathi, Ben Stokes, Krishnappa Gowtham, Stuart Binny, Jofra Archer, Jaydev Unadkat, Dhawal Kulkarni.
Kings XI Punjab: Chris Gayle, KL Rahul (wk), Karun Nair, Mayank Agarwal, Nicholas Pooran/Sam Curran, Prabhsimran Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin (c), Ankit Rajpoot, Varun Chakravarthy, Andrew Tye, Mujeeb ur Rahman.
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