The boost to Tamil Nadu's collective strength
L Balaji has said this for the first time in his 12-year long career: Tamil Nadu have finally found the right balance, the right combination, the right hunger, and, essentially the right team. Even if Balaji speaks incoherent English, he is not given to hyperbole. When he says this is the best Tamil Nadu team he has been part of, it merits greater attention. All the more reason, as Tamil Nadu have entered the final of the tournament for the first time since 2004.
"After 12 years I feel I have the right team," Balaji said, on the eve of the 78th Ranji Trophy final at Chepauk. "And I am part of the right team which can take the process to the next level. In the past there was over-dependence on one or two individuals. That is no more the case. If we are pushed in to a corner everyone knows their role, every one stands up and helps us come out of a tough situation."
Balaji was speaking of the difference between his team and the previous ones in the last eight years that were inconsistent and failed to go past the semi-final mark. Tamil Nadu reached the final in successive years in 2003 and 2004. Both were against Mumbai but each time Tamil Nadu came out second. Balaji played the 2003-04 final. His team-mate S Badrinath played both.
When asked if the hurt of not winning was what made Tamil Nadu grittier this time, Balaji disagreed. A majority of players in his squad are playing the final for the first time and Balaji said they would not relate to the hurt factor. "It is a team game. We need to believe in each other. That is what changed the trend. That is what changed the mental process of the players going into the match," Balaji said.
One player who has witnessed that change and has, in the process, changed his attitude is Ramaswamy Prasanna, Tamil Nadu's lower-order talisman. If not for Prasanna's rearguards at critical situations on a couple of occasions this season, Tamil Nadu would have never made it this far.
Prasanna, in fact, made his Ranji Trophy debut in 2004 for Tripura after the power-packed Tamil Nadu middle order comprising the likes of Sridharan Sriram, S Sharath, Hemang Badani and Badrinath left him no chance. He returned home after a year and made his debut for Tamil Nadu in 2006. But till this year, Prasanna had never played an entire season. Balaji, however, assured him this season would be different.
"Immediately after the Tamil Nadu squad was announced, Bala [Balaji] called me. I was at a friend's house and it was raining heavily. He told me that I would get my due this season. I was very excited," Prasanna said. The respect is mutual because Prasanna was also happy about Balaji leading for the first time. "Bala commands a lot of respect from the rest of the squad. Without Bala we wouldn't have come this far. He is a tremendous inspiration for us."
Balaji explained to Prasanna that his job was to guide the lower-order batting. And even when he failed the captain did not make him feel insecure. During their second-round game against against Haryana, Prasanna had not scored many runs. But he took three good catches. "When he was with his non-cricketing friends he mentioned those catches to them. One of them was my college-mate. I didn't expect this from Bala. It really gave me huge confidence because he valued even little things," Prasanna said.
Balaji knew Prasanna's potential. Here was scoring consistently for many years in the Chennai league, one of the toughest domestic leagues in India. "If he can score in that (Chennai league) he can transfer that to the domestic cricket," Balaji said of Prasanna, who he feels has matured now. "Whenever he has been in pressure situations he has fought hard and come out of it. I like the mental endurance of cricketers like Prasanna and Yo Mi [Yo Mahesh]."
Prasanna himself has a lot of time for Mahesh, with whom he forged valuable, fighting partnerships to lift Tamil Nadu out of misery. Their latest rallying cry came during the semi-final after Tamil Nadu were in dire straits at 139 for 6 in the first innings. A critical 155-run alliance for the seventh wicket between Prasanna and Mahesh turned the match in the visitors' favour as they raised a strong total that Mumbai failed to overtake. "For a tail-ender he has played more than 900 deliveries this season. That is a really admirable feat," Prasanna said of Mahesh.
Another effective player for Tamil Nadu has been Jagannathan Kaushik, who has already made his mark in his debut season, picking 24 wickets, the highest for his team. Kaushik, a tall and lanky seamer, had been knocking on the doors after ending up among the top wicket-takers in Chennai's league cricket in the last two years. Balaji sympathised with Kaushik for not having made his debut earlier but when the opportunity presented itself, he blooded him readily.
"He should have been playing much before. Whatever the opportunities he has got, he has taken them," Balaji said of Kaushik, who took six wickets in his very first match, against Delhi. Kaushik's strength is to bowl the inswingers and it complements the pair of Balaji and Mahesh, who shape the ball away, making the batsman's life that much more difficult.
Balaji hasn't been the only architect of Tamil Nadu's revival. He is the fulcrum. Seniors like Badrinath and Dinesh Karthik, and even the pair of Murali Vijay and Abhinav Mukund, have worked hard and chipped in with valuable suggestions both during the matches as well as in the dressing room. It has been a collective effort. And that, Balaji said, has been the catalyst of their recent success.
"The bridging between the newcomers and the seniors who have been there for the last eight to nine years has been the main difference."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo