'Sporting wicket' expected for TN-Saurashtra clash
Two of the Ranji Trophy's batting powerhouses take on each other in Chennai from Thursday, but it's the home side, Tamil Nadu, feeling the pressure to register an outright win. With only seven points from three games, the 2011-12 runners-up sit at No. 6 in Group B while their opponents, Saurashtra, are comfortably placed at second position.
Tamil Nadu are playing their first home game of the season and it will be up to their bowlers to redress the balance and take the 20 wickets needed for a victory. Tamil Nadu failed to progress to the knockouts last season due to a surfeit of draws - six out of eight games - and the trend has continued in the early stages of this season. They took first-innings points against Services and Madhya Pradesh, the latter being asked to follow-on. The bowlers didn't have enough time to push for an outright win in Indore, but it was the closest Tamil Nadu have got to a winning position.
The top order failed on a cold morning in Meerut, against Uttar Pradesh, but the middle and lower order showed fight to take the score close to 300. However, the UP lower order showed greater durability to take a commanding first-innings lead after struggling at one stage at 205 for 6. It was what the Tamil Nadu captain L Balaji described as "one bad day", in which his side squandered a position of strength.
The relaid pitch at the MA Chidambaram is not among the most seamer-friendly in the country - it produced a dreary draw in the 2011-12 Ranji final - but it is learnt that both captains had requested for a bit of grass to be left on the surface in order to encourage an outright win. The pitch reportedly had a greenish tinge on the eve of the game, but the captains will take another look on the morning of the game to determine their bowling combination.
Tamil Nadu's bowling will be under scrutiny after having bowled the opposition out only twice this season. The pitch may give them some relief. "We are expecting a sporting wicket, to make it more evenly balanced and it shouldn't be just batting oriented," Balaji said. He was confident the batsmen would fire in unison after the jittery start in Meerut. "It's one of the best batting line-ups. I'd always bank on the batting. We need to put a good score on the board," Balaji said.
Saurashtra have had a greater exposure to green pitches this season, in two away games. Like Tamil Nadu, their batting was tested in their previous game, against Bengal, where they conceded a first-innings lead. A fighting century stand between the captain Jaydev Shah and Aarpit Vasavada saved them from a disconcerting 38 for 4 in the fourth innings.
Shah noted that the batting was in good health, despite their slip up at Eden Gardens. "It happens sometimes on a green pitch," he said. "But we batted well in the second innings to save the game. Our batsmen have been consistent. Everyone from 1 to 7 has scored a hundred."
The good news for Saurashtra is that their strike bowler, Jaydev Unadkat, will join the squad tonight and should be available for selection. The left-arm seamer did not take part in India's third ODI against West Indies in Kanpur.
Saurashtra began their season on a high with an innings win against Rajasthan in Rajkot. They took innings points at home against UP at home but conceded innings leads in both their away games. Shah, who was also expecting a seamer-friendly surface in Chennai, said players like Cheteshwar Pujara would have the most to gain from that, as it would prepare him for tougher challenges in South Africa.
While Saurashtra had 15 fit players to pick from, the hosts had just one injury concern, with the seamer Sunil Sam suffering a niggle. Both captains, however, were undecided on their line-ups.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo