The idea was definitely to strike most, if not all, deliveries over the ropes during the powerplays, and give Rajasthan Royals that immediate momentum that could lay the foundation for anchor players like Robin Uthappa and Steve Smith to lay the platform before a late firework could power them to a big total. It was something that the Royals lacked since stepping outside Sharjah in the first half of IPL 2020. Hence as soon as Ben Stokes was available for a struggling and puzzling Rajasthan Royals at the start midway through the campaign, he was immediately slotted in and given the opener's role. But the problem persisted as Stokes' struggle to show intent.
In five IPL matches that he opened this season, he has scored 110 runs in 103 balls and is yet to score a six, making him only the second batsman in IPL 2020 to face 100-plus balls without hitting a maximum. And his strike rate of 106.79 is the least among all batters who have faced more than 100 balls this season.
Could batting out of position be the reason?
Stokes has opened before in T20 cricket, but only five times scoring 188 runs at a strike rate of 139.25, although each of those happened over two years back. Stokes has primarily been a middle-order batsman. Even for England, he has batted at No.5 and No.6 over the last two years. He has a T20 strike rate of 136.2 while batting at No.5 in T20s where he has also scored two half-centuries.
Stokes at various batting positions in T20 cricket...
One other reason why the idea failed to work might have been a lack of match practice. After the opening Test against Pakistan earlier in the summer he had left England for New Zealand to be with his ailing father and only returned earlier this month to the UAE where he completed his six-day quarantine was rushed into the Royals playing XI. IPL 2020 by then was almost at the halfway mark with the pitches turning slow, hence giving lesser time to Stokes to acclimatise to the conditions.
Why Jos Buttler should be opted?
Buttler has performed well in the middle order scoring 103 runs in his three innings across No.4 and 5 at a strike rate of 121. But would a talent of Buttler's sort be wasted in the middle-order lineup? The wicketkeeper-batsman has been a sensation as an opener in the T20 format, scoring 1298 runs since 2018 at a strike rate of 152.07 besides having a stupendous strike rate of 151.7 in the powerplays during the period. His T20 strike rate (since 2018) drops to 84 at No.4, 130.5 at No.5 and 111.1 at No.6.
Even Shane Warne, Rajasthan Royals' mentor and brand ambassador, agrees with Buttler as Royals' opener and admitted that the idea of using him as a floater in the middle-order. He further added that Buttler should be used as an opener alongside Steve Smith.
"I think Buttler should definitely be opening," Warne told Sky Sports' IPL Cricket Show in the UK. "I think Ben Stokes can do a job opening the batting, but I would like Ben in the middle overs - that's where he has played all of his cricket and done really well.
"That's not to say he [Stokes] can't open, but Jos Buttler to me - if you're picking a world XI, the first one penciled in is at the top of the order, No. 1, [is] Buttler. I'm not sure why they've gone away from that. I think Jos has to bat at the top. I think Steven Smith should be the guy that's the backbone of the team in their batting, so he should probably open as well with Buttler, and then you've got Sanju Samson, Stokes - that's one to four, then guys like [Rahul] Tewatia who's done really well, [and] young Riyan Parag at five and six."
One reason why this swap could work is Stokes' ability in the death overs where he has a strike rate of 167.6 in 28 innings in his T20 career. This could allow two left-handers, Tewatia being the other, to dominate the proceedings during the phase when spinners, against whom he averages 87.16 since 2018, are seldom used.