What is ailing Tamil Nadu? Why are they unable to win the Ranji Trophy? In this decade they entered the finals twice (on both occasions they failed to break Mumbai's defiant spirit), reached the semi-finals twice and made the quarterfinals thrice. Otherwise they failed to reach the knockouts three times. Once considered contenders in the country's elite competition they have now slipped to being little more than pretenders.
As part of the 1988 winning team it is my fervent wish to see Tamil Nadu lift the trophy but one that has consistently remained unfulfilled. This year they once again have an opportunity to correct all the wrongs which have been dogging them for many years.
Winning teams always hold the edge over the rest of the opposition by their ability to identify the crucial moments and take charge. The Ranji finals in 2003 and 2004 are classic examples where Tamil Nadu were ahead of Mumbai, but failed to force the issue when it mattered the most. In the first instance they shot out Mumbai early in the first innings but instead of seizing the advantage the top-order defended early on. Eventually they did take a slender lead, but Mumbai just smashed the visitors' bowling to erase the deficit quickly and set a big winning target. Tamil Nadu succumbed easily during the chase.
The year after that, playing at home, after winning the toss on a batting pitch Tamil Nadu were five down at lunch with some irresponsible strokes from senior batsmen. These are the big moments I am talking about, instances where Mumbai have seized the moment.
I distinctly remember being forced to eat my words three seasons ago when Mumbai were on the verge of relegation, but found remarkable strength to challenge the adversity. They had got off to the worst possible start during the league phase and were on the verge of a humiliating relegation, but found the gumption and showed the tenacity to bounce back in the nick of time. Importantly, they were not concentrating on retention in the elite group. They focused instead on re-grouping and retained the crown.
Another important element that favours Mumbai is the emergence of rescue artists when the team is in dumps. Tamil Nadu have sorely missed such men. It could be because these things come with experience, when players assume responsibility, identify the right moment to go for the kill and not hold back. It is about survival. Such traits are ingrained in Mumbai's players very well. They might lose the odd league match but you rarely see them missing the big moment because they know the entire team will be after them. And, remember this, they have managed to do this with a modest talent.
Experienced guys like Ajit Agarkar leads the bowling pack. Ramesh Powar takes over the spin mentor role while Jaffer puts his arm of assurance across the shoulder of young batsmen. That is the key to success and Tamil Nadu need to adopt such a policy. Over the years I have been watching them, I feel that certain players are put under undue burden. For example in the bowling department there is an over-reliance on Laxmipathy Balaji.
Balaji can't be bowling 25 overs a day; he should be actually bowling about 15 and helping others bowlers. It is also for him to understand that he is now in a senior role and he needs to manage the youngsters and show them the direction rather than just be a workhorse. Luckily for him now there is R Ashwin who has shown good promise and enthusiasm to share the workload.
Tamil Nadu have to now take a few leaves out of the Mumbai's book: respect the key moments and identify the players who are going to deal effectively with them. S Badrinath is fighting his own battles and desperately waiting to break into the Indian team. But he can continue scoring runs alongside helping young batsmen maximise their talent.
Dinesh Karthik has tremendous potential with the bat. The moment has arrived for him to put forth his best. They say rising tide lifts all boats. Despite his shortcomings as a captain he remains a gamechanger. It is here the leader needs hands on board. Balaji and Ashwin must be on the look out to provide the twists and turns. This should ease the captain to focus on significant contribution from young batsmen like Abhinav Mukund, Vasudeva Das, Arun Karthick, and Suresh Kumar and when the chips are down the best chip to have the experienced Badrinath and R Satish.
All these players are immensely talented but once they are put together as a unit it suddenly changes. Therein lies the knot that Tamil Nadu have been trying hard to untangle for years. Players should recognise the fact that scoring big runs or taking 5-fors is not done only from the selection point of view. Rather it should be that they should enjoy each other's company. Most of their players have been part of the victorious Chennai Super Kings teams that won the IPL and the Champions League where they learned to assimilate with players from various parts of India and abroad, where they learnt how to contribute to the winning strategy and accomplish their roles. That and the fact that Tamil Nadu are winning in the one-day format is evidence that they know what needs to be done but at the same time their focus is short-lived.