Tamil Nadu attack short of firepower
An assessment of the Tamil Nadu team's competency over the last few seasons reads like a lopsided balance sheet. A team with monumental run-getters who are currently with the Indian team or its fringes, hasn't had a strong bowling attack to complement it. The most revealing figure is the lack of outright victories in the Ranji Trophy in recent seasons. Beyond the batting, the other figures pale in comparison. The checks and balances don't add up, like in plenty of other Ranji teams.
Tamil Nadu have finished Ranji runners-up on three occasions since 2000, the most recent being 2011-12 when they lost out to Rajasthan. Over the last three seasons, including the current one, they have played out a high percentage of draws, in completed games unaffected by the weather. On many occasions, it's been a case of piling on enough runs to try and salvage first-innings points.
Their progression to the 2011-12 final made for staggering reading. They got there by winning just one game, but importantly, didn't lose any. It was like being rewarded merely for staying afloat, rather than swimming to the finish line. Barring a washed-out draw against Baroda, they took innings points in each of their six draws, including the semi-final. Ironically, they were at the receiving end of that strategy in the final against Rajasthan, playing at home. A positive to take from that season was that they bowled teams out twice in a match on three occasions.
They weren't as successful the following season, winning just one game amid six draws. They conceded the innings lead in three of those draws and failed to make the knockouts. They have been without their best bowler R Ashwin, who's been away with the national team. An ageing L Balaji has carried the attack but he hasn't always got the required support in order to consistently take 20 wickets.
The 2011-12 season was relatively better, with the seamer J Kaushik the fifth-highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 28 wickets, followed by the left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas (24) and seamer V Yomahesh (23). The numbers were poor the following season with M Rangarajan's 16 wickets being the highest, with no state bowler in the top 50. Yo Mahesh was the only bowler to take a five-wicket haul. He's currently not in the squad and in the four matches so far, nobody has taken a five-wicket haul - Srinivas' 4 for 40 is the best innings haul. Bowlers like Aswin Crist are less than a season old and hence too early to pass judgements. In this season, Tamil Nadu have taken ten wickets on only two occasions.
Why is the situation so dire? Sunil Subramaniam, the former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner who played first-class cricket between 1988 and 2001, believes it's more an issue with the mind, rather than skill.
"It's not simple to put it down to one specific problem," Subramaniam told ESPNcricinfo. "The way they approach the game has changed and with the shorter formats, everything has gone for a toss. I don't see the fire in their belly. Many don't seem to know what their key ball is. They just look to test the patience of the batsmen."
The pitch at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, where they play most of their home matches, has gotten slower since it was relaid and has often been talked about as one of the factors for not producing enough results. Subramaniam, however, doesn't blame the pitches and believes the bowlers can do more with factors they can control.
"What they do in the air is important and I have not seen them work enough on that," he says. "They do not bowl the right lengths. As for the spinners, it's all about the revolutions you put on the ball, the trajectory is very important." With Ashwin being unavailable, the side has blooded youngsters like the left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas and the offspinner M Rangarajan who need time to develop. Subramaniam believes the current lot can take a cue from Ashwin in terms of developing a stock delivery.
"Everyone looks promising at the age-group level. I don't see the same promise at the later stages. Ashwin has the variety and gets good turn too. I don't see the guys developing a menacing stock ball, something that beats them in flight. There's nothing that stops them from developing it."
Another worrying factor for Tamil Nadu, Subramaniam feels, is the burden on the captain Balaji, whose strike-rate has dropped since coming back from a career-threatening back injury. Balaji's last five-wicket haul in a first-class match came in 2008-09, a season in which he took four in all. Though he plays a good containing role in the T20 format, he hasn't been running through sides in the four-day game ever since.
"There is far too much pressure on him," Subramaniam says. "You can imagine the mountain these guys have to climb when an ageing Balaji is the best bowler in the line-up. Before his injury he would account for nearly 80% of the wickets."
In the ongoing season, Tamil Nadu have played out four draws, taking innings points in two of them. They conceded points to Saurashtra despite scoring 565 and the coach WV Raman said that though the bowling needed consistency, the catching left a lot to be desired. Subramaniam agreed that the dropped catches made the bowlers' figures appear worse than they were but added that the field placements weren't conducive to inducing mistakes from the batsmen.
"I didn't feel the need to have more than two slips," Subramaniam said. "They didn't put enough straight fielders, in catching positions on a driving length. It's alright conceding boundaries square of the wicket. There wasn't enough pressure put on them."
Though it's primarily a young attack, going through a transitional phase, Subramaniam is hopeful things will improve over time. "You have to give them time. The guys are still a work in progress."
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo