Arun Karthik, Mohammed lead Tamil Nadu to second straight final
Tamil Nadu remain unbeaten and will take on the winner of Baroda vs Punjab in the final
Tamil Nadu 158 for 3 (Arun Karthik 89*) beat Rajasthan 154 for 9 (Menaria 51, Gupta 45, Mohammed 4-24) by seven wickets
Tamil Nadu beat Rajasthan in the semi-finals of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for the second season in a row and continued to remain unbeaten this year. In a game of six dropped catches, the runners-up of last year's edition differentiated themselves with their assured and clinical batting as their experience shone through in a chase of 155. Arun Karthik
led the way with an expertly-crafted and unbeaten 89, and sealed the seven-wicket win in the company of captain Dinesh Karthik
Rajasthan start off strong
Rajasthan's decision to bat against a TN side that has won each of their last six games chasing seemed like a decent one when the game began. Despite losing a wicket in the first over to R Sai Kishore
's left-arm spin, Rajasthan kept the scoring rate high in the powerplay as captain Ashok Menaria
and opener Aditya Garhwal picked the right bowlers to target. Those happened to be seamer Aswin Crist, who replaced Sandeep Warrier after the fast bowler was called up to the national team's nets, and offspinner B Aparajith who came on during the powerplay.
But on a slow-ish pitch, Aparajith had the last laugh against Garhwal, who couldn't get enough power on a slog sweep and holed out to long-on. At the other end, however, Menaria kept the attack going against Crist, whose jitteriness would translate to three fours and a six in four consecutive balls at the hands of Menaria to end the powerplay.
No. 4 Arjit Gupta also kept the pressure on Aparajith as TN began to wither under pressure. Shahrukh Khan had dropped a catch in the second over, and there would be two more dropped at long-on by Crist. Rajasthan were 120 for 2 at the end of the 13th over, with Menaria past 50.
Sai Kishore didn't come back on till the 12th over, having bowled the first one, and his return was the catalyst for a big comeback in the second half for TN. Having first dried up the boundary options from his end, Sai Kishore managed to get one to rise on Menaria's pull. Arun Karthik ended a streak of dropped catches by plucking one low after running in from deep midwicket, and it was the signal for a squeeze.
Medium-pacer M Mohammed
had Mahipal Lomror pick out long-off in the next over, and the scoring rate collapsed from there as Sai Kishore got through his spell. Gupta had held one end up for his 45, but when he fell to M Ashwin in the 18th over, Rajasthan's innings was already on a rapid decline. No one after No. 4 managed to score at more than run a ball and the innings sputtered and stopped at 154 for 9: a collapse of 7 for 34 in the last seven overs. Mohammed dug into the lower order and finished with 4 for 24.
Tamil Nadu's experts combine
Starting off wasn't easy for TN as Rajasthan's trio of left-arm seamers kept it tight. Tanveer Ul-Haq made the first breakthrough, getting C Hari Nishanth lbw with one slanted into him in the third over. Next over, Aniket Choudhary pushed one across after swinging a few in, and Aparajith was taken sharply at first slip by Rajesh Bishnoi with a lunge to his left. At the end of the powerplay, even the then chart-topping batsman N Jagadeesan seemed to be stuck, with the score 35 for 2.
But Arun looked in control at the other end, as he looked to deflect and nudge on a sluggish and gripping track with the odd chip, and one stylish pull for six. That kept the score going until Jagadeesan swept Ravi Bishnoi to deep midwicket.
At 70 for 3 at the halfway stage, TN still seemed in control with their two most experienced batsmen in the middle. Dinesh was his industrious self and the two started to chip away at the required run rate with expert manoeuvring and calculated boundaries.
Arun banked on going inside-out, showed an ability to play the field with reverse-ramps and lap-sweeps, and added another sumptuous front-foot pull for six to his score. As their equation eased, so did Rajasthan's concentration. By the time the target was breached, they would drop three catches - all off Khaleel Ahmed's bowling - and miss a run-out chance as well as the two Karthiks saw TN home with an unbroken 89-run stand.
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo