Tamil Nadu undaunted by Mumbai strength
Not too long ago, it was a well known fact that the team most likely to challenge Mumbai - the dominant force in domestic cricket - was Tamil Nadu. The two faced off in consecutive Ranji Trophy finals, in 2002-03 and the following season. Though Mumbai won both, it was a testimony to their respective strengths - Mumbai the nursery of Indian cricket and Tamil Nadu, with its competitive league in Chennai.
The story today reflects a change in fortune for one team. While Mumbai still boast of a handful of internationals in their current set-up, the seismic changes in Tamil Nadu cannot be understated, with the nucleus of the side that finished runners-up shifting allegiances either to other states or to the Indian Cricket League. As both teams practised on Wednesday at the Guru Nanak College Ground in Chennai, the question uppermost on everybody's mind was whether a young Tamil Nadu side could hold its own against the defending champions.
"Man-to-man we are just as strong as them," a confident Tamil Nadu coach, WV Raman, said when asked if Mumbai were the stronger team on paper. "We have challenged them several times in the past and it's up to the players to go out there and execute all the plans."
Currently, the only player in the squad with international experience is Dinesh Karthik, ready for domestic duties after being left out of the Indian one-day squad. It must be emphasised here that Karthik was one of the success stories in England, establishing himself as a technically adept opener at the Test level. Despite those credentials, Raman said the opening combination of M Vijay and S Anirudha would not be disturbed, leaving Karthik to bolster the middle order.
With Tamil Nadu set to retain the same XI that took on Maharashtra in the previous match, promising Under-19 batsman Abhinav Mukund will have to wait a little longer to play his maiden first-class match at home. Mukund, a left-handed opening batsman, was one of the batting stars of the U-19 tour to Sri Lanka, finishing as the top scorer with a double-century and a century to boot.
"Abhinav has been named in the squad primarily on the back of his performances there [in Sri Lanka] and he will get his chance soon," Raman said. "With Karthik filling in as the back-up opener, we don't feel the need to have four openers in the line-up."
The bowling combination, Raman said, didn't need any changes yet. "The surface we played on at Chepauk [against Maharashtra] had nothing in it for the seamers, so it wasn't ideal to analyse their performance. R Ashwin [the off spinner] bowled well so that was a plus point."
While Tamil Nadu have their line-up intact, injury permitting, Mumbai will pick theirs on the morning of the match. Pravin Amre, the Mumbai coach, was non-committal about team changes, though he indicated they would continue with the policy of playing two specialist spinners in Ramesh Powar and Iqbal Abdulla.
"Our combination will depend on the state of the wicket in the morning," Amre said. "It looks a good wicket to bat on as of now, and our practice session today was primarily on the batting and we talked about piling up a good score first up."
Raman, more familiar with the conditions, agreed it appeared a good wicket but said it would be interesting to see if it held up for four full days. The pitch has a layer of grass on it and Amre expected a considerable portion of that to be shaved off.
If the batsmen do rule on this surface, it could be the continuation of the trend of drawn games which marked the first round. Being a college ground, there's just a thin boundary rope separating the on-field players from the spectators so the media persons in the makeshift enclosure could have some additional responsibilities each time the ball heads there.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo