Ultra-cautious Rajasthan make Tamil Nadu toil

Cricket Ranji Trophy final: Saxena, Chopra put visitors on top

The poor turn-out at the MA Chidambaram stadium was indicative of the lack of interest in domestic cricket, especially in the more established centres in the country.

Those that did take the trouble of making to day one of the Ranji Trophy final must have regretted their decision, and not merely because the home side was at the receiving end.

A surface that belied its appearance and played as benignly as can be imagined – it still might change character as the match progresses – coupled with Rajasthan’s well thought out but painfully slow progress made for an unedifying spectacle as Tamil Nadu came under the cosh for the whole of Thursday.

No more than a dozen of the 543 deliveries sent down got past the bat; there were but a half-dozen stifled appeals on a day remarkably devoid of oohs and aahs as Aakash Chopra (86 batting, 373m, 273b, 9x4) and Vineet Saxena (120 batting, 373m, 269b, 16x4) put the defending champions in a position of tremendous strength.

Two of the most consistent batsmen for Rajasthan this season, the openers realised their best association of this campaign as the visitors ended day one on a commanding 221 without loss, the rate of scoring modest not because the bowling brooked careful watching but because Rajasthan’s game plan revolved grinding the bowling to the dust.

Lakshmipathi Balaji must have rued his luck when Hrishikesh Kanitkar won the toss. There is nothing like runs on the board in a cup final, and especially on a surface that offered the bowlers little encouragement, though there were a few indications that that might change over the next couple of days.

Balaji himself bowled a fairly ordinary first over, conceding three boundaries and 17 runs in all. Perhaps, it was reflective of the nerves in the Tamil Nadu camp – the last time they won the Ranji Trophy was in 1988 – but Rajasthan weren’t complaining because contrary to their grain, they had made a breakneck start.

String of maidens

Gradually, Tamil Nadu pulled things back, but without imposing any pressure. While they did stack up a string of maidens, that was mainly because often, the batsmen didn’t need to play at deliveries. At no stage were Chopra and the more free-stroking Saxena asked demanding questions consistently, not by the three-pronged pace attack or by left-arm spinner R Aushik Srinivas, who managed some turn but whose efficacy was blunted by the slowness of curator PR Vishwanathan’s creation.

The isolated moments of alarm for the Rajasthan camp all involved the experienced Chopra. Struck just below his left eye by J Kaushik in the day’s sixth over, Chopra soldiered on.

He survived a tough half-chance to short-leg when 47, and might have been adjudged leg before to part-time leggie Abhinav Mukund when 59 but umpire Peter Hartley ruled in the batsman’s favour. Otherwise, he was his calm, unhurried self, settling down after a frenetic beginning – by his standards! – to plod along untroubled.

The 31-year-old Saxena was more enterprising, using his feet to Aushik, repeatedly reversing him when he bowled a left-arm over line, and driving the pacers crisply in front of the wicket on the off-side. His tenth first-class ton was a pleasing compilation, though it was a hard-earned one even if it wasn’t in the same painstaking league as Chopra’s 49th first-class half-century.

With wickets not forthcoming – truth to tell, Tamil Nadu hardly looked like breaking through – the shoulders began to drop, the intensity fell quickly and the fielding began to become increasingly ragged. To compound the hosts’ woes, Mukund suffered a nasty fall outside the boundary rope as he slipped on a concrete slab and hobbled off with a right hip injury.

When, or whether, their highest run-scorer of the season will come out to bat is uncertain. For Tamil Nadu, though, the immediate priority will be to work out ways to make inroads into the Rajasthan batting, mindful of the fact that this Ranji season’s highest run-getter, Robin Bist, is still biding his batting time.

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