After a lot of uncertainty, the 2020-21 Indian domestic season approaches its first major milestone - the successful completion of the T20 tournament for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy without any hiccups, after having to organise bio-bubbles for 38 teams, of which two are standing: Tamil Nadu and Baroda.
Tamil Nadu have rewritten their batting template for white-ball cricket. Abhinav Mukund, one of their most prolific red-ball players, doesn't feature in a young squad. M Vijay opted out of this season, allowing them to give two young openers in C Hari Nishanth and N Jagadeesan - both proven performers at the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) - an uninterrupted run.
B Aparajith plays the role S Badrinath did so successfully: stem damage if wickets fall in clutches and keep the innings together, while Dinesh Karthik, KB Arun Karthik and Shahrukh Khan play the big roles in the second half of the innings. They have shown continuity with the bowling too, keeping faith in M Mohammed, M Ashwin, R Sai Kishore and Sonu Yadav. They have been so efficient that it's hard to imagine this is a team without several first-choice players: Washington Sundar, Vijay Shankar, R Ashwin, and T Natarajan.
Baroda have been growing as a domestic force over the years, their rise mirroring that of the progress of the Pandya brothers and Deepak Hooda. But those men, the ones who make the team as good as it is, are not around.
Much of their build-up was chaotic. Hardik wasn't available to start with. Then, their designated vice-captain Hooda left the camp after a tiff with Krunal. Then Krunal himself had to leave the camp after two games following the death of the Pandyas' father. But the team devoid of any star power has punched well above its weight under the leadership of Kedar Devdhar, the third-highest run-getter so far this season with 333 runs in seven innings.
Whenever they have had their backs to the wall, they have found ways to wriggle out. In the quarter-final, for example, they nearly miscalculated a straightforward chase and found themselves needing 15 off the last three balls, despite being only two down. They found a saviour in Vishnu Solanki, who went 6, 4, 6 to seal victory. In the semi-final, Devdhar made a plucky 64 on a tricky surface with variable bounce to set up a target for the bowlers to defend. They need one last hurrah from someone to cap off a dream season.
Tamil Nadu: WWWWW Baroda: WWWWW
In the spotlight
R Sai Kishore is making it a habit of delivering frugal spells for Tamil Nadu with his left-arm spin. While he isn't classical, he does have an excellent arm ball, gets bounce owing to his height of well over six feet, and uses the crease and angles tactfully. He can bowl tight overs with the new ball, hold one end up in the middle and keep a lid on runs overall. Last season, he picked 12 wickets in six games at an economy rate of 3.86 - the best among bowlers who bowled at least ten overs. This year, his eight wickets in seven games have come at an economy of just 5.86. The Chennai Super Kings, who didn't play him in IPL 2020, have retained him. Performances like these could become hard to ignore for the team management.
Kartik Kakade only made his T20 debut for Baroda this season at 25. A late bloomer then, but he has a bit of Sunil Narine in his bowling, something that is sure to have been noted by the IPL talent scouts. He hides the ball while running in and then uses his fingers to flick them across to turn it both ways. In the semi-final, he also showed off his batting ability in striking a maiden T20I fifty in his first outing with the bat. With the ball, he has got five wickets in five innings at an economy of 6.70
Stats and trivia
Tamil Nadu won the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2006-07, in the pre-IPL era, before coming closest last season, when they were beaten by Karnataka in a last-ball finish in Surat. Dinesh Karthik, the only man standing from that triumph a decade-and-a-half ago, has been captain in each of the three final appearances.
Baroda, in contrast, know how to get here, even though they may be the rank underdogs going into the final. They are two-time winners - in 2011-12 and 2013-14 - apart from having finished runners-up to Uttar Pradesh in 2015-16.
The battle to be the highest run-getter of the season could decide who wins. Jagadeesan tops the tally with 350 runs, but Devdhar isn't far behind with 333. Both are openers too, and will fancy a good crack at the top.
Left-arm seamer Lukman Meriwala's 5 for 8 against Chhattisgarh has been the best performance with the ball among all those who could potentially feature in Sunday's final. With 14 wickets overall, he has got the most wickets among those who should turn out on Sunday too. Overall, he is the fourth-highest wicket-taker this season. Three more wickets will help him pip Bihar's Ashutosh Aman for the top spot.
"Heartening to see an understated team play with their heart. Baroda have played like caged tigers. Players, coaching staff - this is your win, be in the moment."
Baroda Cricket CEO Shishir Hattangadi
"We're missing out on a lot of names, but the same time we have a good bunch of [young] players. Everyone is very hungry and wants to do well. We're all aspiring to become Indian cricketers one day and that's something that drives us. And Dinesh Karthik is someone with tonnes of experience and he has managed the team really well."
Top run-scorer N Jagadeesan on Tamil Nadu's success so far