April 8, 2000

Tamil Nadu's record could be much better

In the third part of a series on the Ranji Trophy semifinalists, the author looks at why and how Tamil Nadu's record is not in keeping with its talent and reputation.

Even leading players from other states readily concede that cricketers from Tamil Nadu have plenty of talent but they don't do justice to their prodigious gifts. Because of this, Tamil Nadu's record in the Ranji Trophy is not as good as it should be. Two title triumphs - 33 years apart - and six times runners-up in 65 years is not exactly an achievement that those associated with the game in the State can be proud of.

Certainly there has been no problem with Tamil Nadu cricket as far as the zonal level is concerned. On numerous occasions, they have topped the South Zone Championship even in the face of stiff competition from Karnataka and Hyderabad. It is in the knock out stage that the State teams have failed to deliver. Pitted against Bombay and Delhi, Tamil Nadu has repeatedly faltered. Certainly it would seem to be largely psychological for Tamil Nadu lost more than a dozen times to Bombay before finally defeating them for the first time in 1995-96. Against Delhi, the record was: played six, lost six before Tamil Nadu scored their first victory, again in 1995-96 on the way to their eighth entry into the Ranji Trophy final.

Indeed, during the initial years of the Ranji Trophy, great things were expected from Madras (as the state was known till 1970). A victory in just one day against Mysore in the inaugural fixture at Chepauk in 1934-35 augured well for them. By the second year of the national competition, Madras had entered the final before losing to Bombay. With players like CP Johnstone, M Baliah, C Ramaswami, MJ Gopalan and AG Ram Singh around, Madras were always serious contenders for the trophy and they made their second entry into the title round in 1940-41 before going down to the formidable Maharashtra side, led by DB Deodhar.

The forties were not a very prolific period despite the fact that many of the old stalwarts were still around and CR Rangachari and NJ Venkatesan had bolstered the bowling. It was not until 1954-55 that Madras were able to lay their hands upon the trophy for the first time, with a creditable victory over a strong Holkar side at Indore. By this time, outstanding young players had been discovered in AG Kripal Singh and CD Gopinath and the two played a notable part in that great triumph.

Not unexpectedly, hopes were high in the state that the maiden victory would mark a turning point in Madras' fortunes in the Ranji Trophy. However over the next decade, the state side flattered only to deceive. Madras won the South Zone championship in 1958-59, 1960-61 and 1961-62 but lost each time to Bombay, Rajasthan and Delhi. By now players like VV Kumar and AG Milkha Singh had been unearthed and with Kripal Singh and Gopinath around, Madras were still a team not to be taken lightly.

The 1967-68 season did promise to be one of fulfillment. Madras were a well balanced outfit and for once they played to their potential. By this time Venkatraghavan had been around for a few years and he and Kumar formed a deadly spin duo, the batting in the hands of KR Rajagopal, skipper PK Belliappa, Michael Dalvi, AG Milkha Singh and AG Satwender Singh was sound and there were a couple of handy medium pace bowlers in Bhaskar and Prabhakar. The side won all their four games in the zone and then defeated Madhya Pradesh in the quarterfinal and Services in the semifinal. With six straight victories behind them, they were confidence personified. Their opponents in the final were Bombay. But an important point in the southern team's favour was the fact that Bombay were without six of their main players, away on national duty in New Zealand. For once, Madras were installed as favourites against Bombay. But in what was a major disappointment for thousands of cricket lovers in the state, Madras lost on the first innings to a determined Bombay side.

By the early seventies, Tamil Nadu were rebuilding under the captaincy of Venkatraghavan. He proved to be a shrewd skipper and in 1972-73, completely against expectations, led his young team into the final. Again the opponents were Bombay. And again Bombay triumphed, this time in the infamous final at Chepauk which lasted two days and a single delivery on the third day.

Venkat continued to try his best but throughout the 70s and 80s, the team faltered, losing repeatedly to the old nemesis Bombay and Delhi. Even the most optimistic Tamil Nadu cricket follower had by now given up all hopes of the state winning the Ranji Trophy when there was a most pleasant surprise in 1987-88. There was nothing in the state's performance at the zonal level to indicate that something special was round the corner. But ably led by all rounder S Vasudevan, the team did show determination, dedication and concentration - qualities that the players generally lacked. Of course some fine cricketers had been discovered in the 80s - Robin Singh, B Arun, VB Chandrasekhar, M Venkatramana and L Sivaramakrishnan - while old guards like the captain, V Sivaramakrishnan and K Srikkanth were still around. The blend of youth and experience worked and with luck too playing a hand - Delhi eliminated Bombay in the quarterfinals and were themselves eliminated by Railways in the penultimate round narrowly on run quotient - Tamil Nadu were worthy victors after a very long time.

Over the last decade however Tamil Nadu has again flattered only to deceive. The batting of WV Raman and Sadagopan Ramesh, the all round skills of Robin Singh and Diwakar Vasu and the bowling of Sunil Subramaniam and Venkatramana have all been plus points but all this has not been enough to win the trophy. In 1988-89, Tamil Nadu lost in the semifinal to Bengal. Then in 1991-92 and 1995-96 they entered the finals, losing to Delhi and Karnataka. This year however there seems to be a sense of purpose in their play, going by their performances at the zonal level, the Super League and in the quarterfinal against Punjab. Ahead of them is - Bombay! Will they choke again? Or has the jinx been well and truly broken by the victory four years ago? We shall soon know.