When the Kings XI Punjab met the Rajasthan Royals the first time this season a little over a month back, we witnessed one of the games of the tournament, but Steven Smith and his men go into Friday's return fixture in Abu Dhabi knowing nothing less than a win will keep their campaign alive. Their confidence should be high after a magnificent chase against the Mumbai Indians, riding on the back of a Ben Stokes century. However, unlike their last meeting, this time they run into a red-hot side that brought up their fifth successive win after beating the Kolkata Knight Riders earlier this week.
While Stokes' century and Sanju Samson's return to form were huge positives for the Royals in their last game, what will worry Smith most is their bowling. Already over-dependent on Jofra Archer, the Royals have the worst economy (12.40) at the death among all teams in this tournament.
Getting their act together with the ball will be crucial against the Kings XI, for whom Chris Gayle's inclusion has provided the middle order some stability. That apart, the Kings XI also enjoy the cushion provided by KL Rahul and Nicholas Pooran on either side of Gayle. The Kings XI line-up has missed Mayank Agarwal through injury in the last couple of matches, and his return might see him slot in to open alongside Rahul, in which case Mandeep Singh could drop down the order and replace Deepak Hooda. Their bowling has had a settled look in recent games, with Mohammed Shami leading the attack, allowing legspinners M Ashwin and Ravi Bishnoi to come on when the opposition batsmen are already under a fair amount of pressure.
Agarwal (106) and Rahul (69) shared a 183-run opening stand to power the Kings XI to an imposing 223 for 2, but the Royals' reply was spearheaded by Smith, who smashed 50 off 27 balls as an opener to get some momentum going. Samson made a jaw-dropping 85 from 42, clobbering seven sixes and four fours, but his wicket in the 17th over appeared to put the Kings XI ahead. That's when Rahul Tewatia, who had limped to 5 off 13, took the attack to Sheldon Cottrell to complete one of the great comebacks in an individual innings, helping the Royals nail the highest successful IPL chase.
Kings XI Punjab: 1 Mayank Agarwal, 2 KL Rahul (capt, wk), 3 Chris Gayle, 4 Nicholas Pooran, 5 Glenn Maxwell, 6 Mandeep Singh/ Deepak Hooda, 7 Chris Jordan, 8 M Ashwin, 9 Mohammed Shami, 10 Ravi Bishnoi, 11 Arshdeep Singh
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Ben Stokes, 2 Robin Uthappa, 3 Sanju Samson, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Riyan Parag, 7 Rahul Tewatia, 8 Shreyas Gopal, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Ankit Rajpoot/ Varun Aaron/ Jaydev Unadkat, 11 Kartik Tyagi
Rahul is closing in on 600 runs for the season but has scores of 15, 27 and 28 in the last three matches. However, the Royals have been a friendly opposition to him: he averages 57.33 against them and his last five matches have produced innings of 84, 95, 4, 52 and 69, the last one coming earlier this season in Sharjah. If batsmen around him can take their chances early, he could consider dropping the anchor and looking to cash in on the death overs.
Smith will need to figure out the best way to employ Archer. Rahul has a good record against Archer, having struck at 170 and never been dismissed in four previous match-ups. But Gayle averages just 17.50 against him and Maxwell 6.50, with both having been dismissed twice by Archer. With the legspin of Shreyas Gopal and Tewatia critical components of the middle overs, Smith might not want to have the left-handers Gayle and Pooran face a majority of those. Spreading Archer's overs through the middle and the death might sound counterintuitive given how good he has been in the powerplay, but it could help throttle the Kings XI innings at the backend, especially if the Royals are to chase.
Stats that matter
This match will pit the two most prolific six-hitters - after 48 games this season - against each other. Samson (23) and Pooran (22) have smashed the most sixes so far, with Rahul (20) not too far behind either.
With 17 wickets, this is already Archer's best IPL season as a bowler. His average of 19.23 and economy of 6.86 are also his best in three seasons.
Gopal needs three scalps to bring up 50 IPL wickets.
Pooran needs two sixes to bring up 200 sixes in T20 cricket.
Gayle requires seven maximums to bring up 1000 T20 sixes.