Heavyweights in game of patience
Look at the team rosters and you will be inclined to call Tamil Nadu the favourites ahead of Mumbai on the eve of the Ranji Trophy semi-final which starts at Wankhede Stadium from Tuesday. In L Balaji, S Badrinath, Dinesh Karthik, M Vijay and Abhinav Mukund, Tamil Nadu have five players who have played for India, and are still in the reckoning. In contrast, Mumbai have only Abhishek Nayar and the pair of Wasim Jaffer and Ramesh Powar, two marathoners who run as if there is no finish tape, but with little hope of returning to the India squad.
Yet Mumbai retain that bonding, that ability to pull together as a team, regardless of how strong or meagre the resources at hand, a quality that has seen them emerge domestic champions on five occasions from the turn of the millennium.
In the corresponding period, Tamil Nadu entered the finals only twice, in 2002-02 and 2003-04, faced Mumbai on both occasions, and came out second. Badrinath played in both those defeats while Balaji, Tamil Nadu's current captain, was part of the 2003 side. If you do not win a Ranji Trophy when you have played for more than ten years, it hurts, as Balaji admitted.
It is this pain of the absence of the crown which is bound to be the driving force for Tamil Nadu over the next four days. But Balaji's biggest challenge would be to keep his inexperienced bowling attack focussed, accurate and patient. Yo Mahesh and Jagannathan Kaushik, his fast-bowling partners, need Balaji to prompt them from mid-off and mid-on all the time.
Aushik Srinivas is Tamil Nadu's leading spinner at 18. The slow left-arm bowler will have fond memories of this city, as it was against Mumbai that he had got his career-best figures of 7 for 107 at the Bandra Kurla Complex ground in 2009. But Aushik tends to get distracted and bowls wrong lines; he needs constant guidance from Balaji and J Gokulakrishnan, the Tamil Nadu bowling coach.
Not only does he have to play the mentor, Balaji also has to give the right start with the new ball for his young attack to stay calm. He has declared himself fit for the match after sitting out on the third day of the quarter-final against Maharashtra due to back spasms. It was an old injury, Balaji said, which he now knows how to handle. If anything, Balaji, an intense man, and an aggressive bowler, will only be hungry to accept the challenge.
Luckily for them, the visitors' batting is full of experience and talent. Vijay, Abhinav, Badrinath and Karthik will be itching to perform and impress the selectors who will assemble in Chennai on January 15 to pick the ODI squad for the tri-series in Australia.
With 825 runs, Abhinav is only 16 behind Rajasthan's Robin Bist, the highest run-getter this season. But he has never played at Wankhede and importantly, never made a Ranji century against Mumbai. Vijay has been inconsistent this season; the absence of any century highlights that fact.
Badrinath was ruled out for part of the season with an injury. He returned for the previous four matches and made a hundred against Gujarat. It was his 250 that had forced Mumbai to concede the first-innings lead in 2009. The batting form of the wicketkeeper Karthik, for whom Wankhede will soon be the home ground in the IPL after he was bought by Mumbai Indians, allows his team to field five bowlers.
Mumbai will be wary of all these men, once they sort their own issues. Despite the absence of Ajit Agarkar, Mumbai have managed to get this far, and credit goes to Ramesh Powar, the joint-highest wicket-taker among the four semi-finalists. His success only exposes the limitations of Mumbai's fast bowlers.
Though Dhawal Kulkarni got a five-for in the first innings against Madhya Pradesh in the quarter-final, he failed to get a wicket the second time around and sat out the final day with a shin niggle. Balwinder Sandhu - who claimed a five-for on debut against Punjab - bowled gamely against MP, but lacks the pace to breach the formidable Tamil Nadu batting order. Kshemal Waingankar can bowl honest spells but needs support from his captain as well as from the opposite end.
The return of Nayar, who was forced to miss the previous two matches due to a swollen thumb, could provide Mumbai some respite. Though Suryakumar Yadav has been the highest run-getter for Mumbai, Nayar has been their best batsman, playing with a maturity that comes with years and the willingness to accept the responsibility of being a senior batsman. Along with his batting, Nayar has also proved handy with the ball, bowling nagging lines, at times wide outside the off stump, to distract batsman into playing a false stroke.
"Most of their batsmen have played for India and have been scoring runs. Even in their bowling you have to guard against Balaji who is always a threat. So you have to guard against everything," Wasim Jaffer, the Mumbai captain, said. Accoding to Balaji, it would be a tough game, like always. "Whenever Tamil Nadu and Mumbai play, both teams play hard," Balaji said.
In the end it would be a game of patience, as WV Raman, the former India batsman and Tamil Nadu coach, said on The Chatter, ESPNcricinfo's audio show.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo