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  • Saurabh Somani in Chennai

If in a T20 match, the team batting second needs 39 to win off the last four overs with eight wickets in hand, you would expect them to win more often than not. But Rajasthan Royals faltered against Kings XI Punjab.

If you have a team putting on 198 while batting first, you would back them to defend it. But Royals failed to do so against Sunrisers Hyderabad.

If a team needs 12 off the last over, with two big-hitters at the crease – both with strike rates in excess of 150 – against a bowler who conceded 19 in his previous over, you might back the chasing side to win. Once again, Royals couldn’t get over the line.

It’s been a series of near-misses for Royals at the start of IPL 2019, and if they don’t arrest that slide, the downward spiral could be steep. “We just need to get over the mark, we need to get that ‘W’ next to our name, and hopefully our campaign can get some momentum from that,” Ben Stokes said after Royals’ latest defeat, by eight runs against Chennai Super Kings at Chepauk.

“Our first three games we’ve put ourselves in really good positions to win all three,” Stokes said. “It’s just winning those crucial moments. The crucial moment tonight was our last over, and unfortunately we couldn’t cross the line. There’s always been one point in the other two games where we haven’t been the better team in that. We can take a lot of positives… I mean losing your first three games, you probably wouldn’t say you can take positives from that! But we’re trying to. There’s no point looking back. We’ve got to concentrate on the next games we’ve got because if we lose four-five on the bounce, it’s going to be really tough to come back from that.”

Stokes had brought Royals within sight of victory with some ferocious late-hitting on Sunday, in the company of Jofra Archer. Both men had combined to bludgeon Dwayne Bravo for two sixes and a four in a 19-run over. In the next, Stokes hit an incredible one-handed six off Shardul Thakur, to bring the equation to 12 off six balls. The excessive dew meant MS Dhoni could turn only to Bravo for the final over, but off the first ball, Stokes scooped a drive to Suresh Raina at cover.

“The plan was to get it down to the last over, and I thought the first ball is probably the most crucial to try and get a boundary off, to try and cull momentum for us,” Stokes said. “I felt I was unlucky just to go straight to the fielder, but you know Bravo’s so experienced in those situations. He knows what to do, and he’s probably one of the best in the world at doing it. So you’ve just got to say ‘well bowled’ at end of the day.”

Royals have had extenuating circumstances in all their defeats so far, some self-created. They allowed a mankad dismissal to consume them in the chase against Kings XI. Against Sunrisers, the gale force of David Warner blew them off course, and against Super Kings, Dhoni’s masterful finishing combined with dewy conditions, that rendered gripping the ball very difficult, made the difference.

“Most of our bowlers actually said that it was one of the hardest conditions they had to bowl in with the state of the ball,” Stokes said. “Obviously the dew on the grass was making the ball really slippery, it was getting swollen up, and you can see how many times the ball was changed. It was a really tough ask for us (fast bowlers), so we can’t imagine how hard it was for the spinners considering they have to try and use their fingers and wrist to spin the ball.”

But while they may have had some bad luck, the points table will not account for that. They will also have to contend with an impending player exodus: Royals will almost certainly be without Stokes, Steven Smith, Jos Buttler and Ashton Turner, and potentially without Archer, for the latter half of the tournament. England’s World Cup players are required to return home by April 25, while Australia’s World Cup players will be unavailable for their franchises after May 1. Before that exodus happens, Royals need to start stacking up wins, or face the prospect of a season of unhappy results.

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