Rajasthan look for another fairytale ending

Tamil Nadu keen to end title drought

The well-chronicled tribulations of the national team in Australia have completely overshadowed the domestic first-class season, the country’s premier longer version competition having quietly wended its way to the climactic phase.

When this Ranji Trophy season began on November 3, few would have expected Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan to be the last teams standing. This, despite the fact that Tamil Nadu have traditionally been among the stronger sides in India, and Rajasthan are the defending champions.

In some ways, two-time champions Tamil Nadu have been the South Africa of the Indian domestic circuit, making the knockout stage almost every year but finding the semifinal hurdle one obstacle too many to overcome. Rajasthan, who had scripted a fairytale run from the Plate Division to the title last season, had clearly punched above their weight in 2011, and not everyone was convinced they could do it a second time.

That Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan now find themselves in the five-day final of the tournament, beginning at the MA Chidamabaram stadium on Thursday, is a tribute to their consistency, their never-say-die spirit, and a certain pride in performance instilled by battle-hardened skippers who have been there and done that.

Rajasthan’s success has been shaped by the proven leadership skills of Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who has ensured that the team backed up last season’s stirring run with another brilliant performance after a shaky start. As opposed to Kanitkar, Lakshmipathi Balaji is a relative novice when it comes to captaincy, but the affable paceman has shown himself to be a true and natural leader of men by shepherding Tamil Nadu to their first final since 2004.

The 30-year-old wasn’t the first, or second, or even third choice as captain, but when the responsibility was eventually offered to him, he accepted it gleefully. He has led the side with creativity and flair, playing a crucial role in bridging the gulf between the seniors and the newcomers, and getting the team to play as a unit instead of a collection of individuals. Balaji has also struck crucial blows with the ball, not least in the semifinals against Mumbai when he winkled out the top three for next to nothing and put his side within one win of their first title triumph since 1988. With 20 wickets, the captain has been part of a vital pace-bowling cog alongside J Kaushik (24 wickets) and V Yomahesh (23), well supported by young left-arm spinner R Aushik Srinivas.

Like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan too boast a pace-oriented attack in which Rituraj Singh has been positively outstanding. The 21-year-old made his debut this season, has played just three matches but with 23 wickets and three five-wicket hauls has clearly set himself down as one of the future. The vastly experienced Pankaj Singh is their leading wicket-taker with 32 scalps and Sumit Mathur has 22, leggie Vivek Yadav (17) and left-arm spinner Gajendra Singh providing the variety.

It’s no surprise that Rajasthan’s rejuvenation has coincided with Rituraj’s arrival. The holders had just five points from their first five Group A games, but stormed into the quarters with outright wins in their last two league fixtures and haven’t looked back since.

Both sets of bowlers should enjoy bowling at Chepauk, the 22-yard strip boasting a decent grass cover and promising to help the quicker bowlers to start with. The harsh sun should gradually bring the spinners into play, necessitating two quality batting line-ups to put their hands up. Rajasthan boast the highest run-scorer in the country this Ranji season in Robin Bist, whose 885 runs is just ahead of Abhinav Mukund’s 871.

Hearteningly from Tamil Nadu’s perspective, Mukund’s fellow opener Murali Vijay has run into form at the most opportune moment, adding further meat to a formidable line-up that contains the prolific S Badrinath, Dinesh Kaarthick and unsung hero R Prasanna.
Rajasthan suffer in comparison. Apart from Bist, only openers Aakash Chopra (503) and Vineet Saxena (627) have topped 500 runs, stats that Tamil Nadu will draw some confidence from as they seek to avenge their semifinal defeat of last year in Jaipur.

Teams (from): Tamil Nadu: Lakshmipathi Balaji (capt), Abhinav Mukund, Murali Vijay, S Badrinath, Dinesh Kaarthick, K Shri Vasudeva Das, R Prasanna, Y Vomahesh, J Kaushik, R Aushik Srinivas, Sunny Gupta, M Kaushik Gandhi, B Aparajith, Sunil Sam, Malolan Rangarajan.

Rajasthan: Hrishikesh Kanitkar (capt), Aakash Chopra, Vineet Saxena, Robin Bist, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Puneet Yadav, Dishant Yagnik, Pankaj Singh, Rituraj Singh, Sumeet Mathur, Gajendra Singh, Vaibhav Deshpande, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Yadav, Aniket Choudhary.

Umpires: Peter Hartley (England) and Vineet Kulkarni.

Hours of play: 0930-1200 hours, 1240-1440 hours and 1500-end of play.

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