Six-star Axar extinguishes Tamil Nadu's flame
Gujarat 248 for 8 (Juneja 74, Gandhi 71, Ashwin 3-51) beat Tamil Nadu 217 (Abhinav 104*, Axar 6-43) by 31 runs
In a spin-off between two India spinners, Axar Patel helped Gujarat prevail over R Ashwin's Tamil Nadu in the semi-final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, played in Alur. Defending just 248 - scored thanks to Manpreet Juneja and Chirag Gandhi's rearguard from 45 for 4 - Gujarat introduced Axar as a bit of a last roll of the dice, with Tamil Nadu 84 for 0 after 16 overs. Axar was the sixth bowler used, but changed the complexion of the match with four wickets in three overs. Gujarat went on to put in a massive squeeze through their spinners. Wickets fell, asking rate crept up, and despite Abhinav Mukund's carrying his bat for 104, Tamil Nadu succumbed to the pressure.
It was a fascinating study in contrast of the mode of operation of both the spinners. While both of them went for wickets, Ashwin did so with funky field settings and Axar depended on pressure through repetition. A combination of the two bodes well for India's limited-overs teams.
Bowling first, Ashwin tantalised with attacking fields and subtle changes of trajectory. At times he bowled with seven men in the circle. He even bowled with only one fielder down the ground, asking him to patrol both mid-on and mid-off so that he could afford an extra catching man in the middle overs when others are happy conceding the single.
Axar, on the other hand, found turn on a tired pitch, and kept pegging away until he plugged enough nails in Tamil Nadu's coffin. Four of his six wickets were stumped, three of them were batsman playing the forward-defensive and ending up dragging their back foot because they had misjudged the length. This will please Axar the most apart from the fact that he produced those wickets almost on demand at crucial junctures.
Axar's first spell of six overs and four wickets reduced Tamil Nadu from 64 for 0 to 124 for 4. His last four overs were bowled in the last 10 after the middle-over squeeze, which had left Tamil Nadu needing 78 off the last 10 overs with five wickets in hand, not entirely unheard of. Axar, though, came back and struck in his first over, as he had done in his first spell. By the time he was done, Axar left Tamil Nadu 33 to get in three overs, with just two wickets in hand.
Back to the first spell then.
Dinesh Karthik and Abhinav had got off to a decent start. Karthik had begun to drive on the up and charge at the quick bowlers. Offspinner Rujul Bhatt and left-arm spinner Hardik Patel didn't bring much change to the fortunes either. Then came Axar. Tamil Nadu will look at the replay of Karthik's dismissal again and again and wonder why he stepped out to Axar who bowls flat and doesn't let batsmen get under his deliveries. Beaten in the flight, Karthik offered a desperate defensive shot, but the ball turned sharply past his bat.
B Aparajith tried the other way of playing Axar, looking to stay back and late-cut him, but edged him to the sharp Bhatt at first slip. Bhatt would go on to maintain the pressure by blocking the other end up for 10 overs for just 34 runs. Axar was not done yet, and produced two best dismissals in his third over. Both B Indrajith and M Vijay thought they had played reasonably well forward-defensive shots, but both saw the ball turn sharply past their outside edges, and their back foots dragged outside the crease against their wishes. Parthiv Patel was electric behind the stumps. Tamil Nadu had lost four wickets for 15 runs.
Now Gujarat put the onus on Tamil Nadu to take the risks. There was nothing funky coming from the fielders. They asked Bhatt and Hardik to go for as few as possible, take the wickets that come their way, and leave Axar and Jasprit Bumrah plenty to defend in the last 10. Along the way R Sathish played a horrendous heave to the first ball after Axar, giving Hardik a wicket. Abhinav and Ashwin had no choice but to try to take the game as deep as possible. Boundaries were sparse. They came in the 18th, 25, 33rd and 40th overs. At the end of 30 overs, the asking rate reached a run a ball, and kept creeping up steadily.
When Axar came back, Ashwin, who had scored 22 off 33 to keep Tamil Nadu in, went for the late-cut, and fell to a superb slip catch. Bhatt stuck his right hand up, and parried it for a rebound for himself to give Axar his maiden List A five-for. The final blow was delivered when Vijay Shankar, too, dragged his back foot out playing a forward-defensive in the 45th over. With three wickets in hand, Tamil Nadu were still 51 runs adrift, and it was only a matter of whether Abhinav would get his hundred now.
Ostensibly given the task to keep one end going, Abhinav had kept his end of the bargain. He managed to get to his hundred, but sat dejected in the tent afterwards. Unlike Abhinav who was left alone, Gandhi and Juneja had helped each other after their collapse in the morning.
They began sensibly, not going for crazy shots despite given some inviting fields by Ashwin, who had taken two wickets to reduce them to 45 for 4 and 87 for 5. They added 93 for the sixth wicket, taking Gujarat past thye 40th over, and only opened up after they had got themselves in. Gandhi hit nine fours while Juneja relied more on running hard, and hit just three fours and a six. Both scored 70s. Axar, who batted ahead of Juneja, couldn't repeat his quarter-final heroics with the bat, but what he did the ball was enough to take Gujarat to their first final in four years.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo