Calm Shahrukh Khan powers Tamil Nadu into final
The allrounder smacked 56 off 46 to steer a thrilling chase in a rain-shortened match in the Vijay Hazare semi-final
Tamil Nadu 181 for 5 (Shahrukh 56*, Karthik 47, Karan 1-18) beat Gujarat 177 for 9 (Raval 40, Axar 37, Mohammed 3-23) by five wickets
40 overs match
In a match shortened to 40-overs a side, Tamil Nadu beat Gujarat by five wickets in a nervy encounter in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2019-20 semi-final, to set up a title clash against Karnataka.
Chasing 178 for victory, Tamil Nadu were 96 for 5 but Shahrukh Khan's 56* off 46 balls saw them pull through with an over to spare, enthralling the handful of neutral fans who turned up at the Just Cricket Academy Ground on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Both teams had star-studded line-ups. R Ashwin, fresh off India's Test series win over South Africa, flew in on Tuesday to join the Tamil Nadu squad for the semi-final. He had M Vijay, Washington Sundar, Abhinav Mukund and captain Dinesh Karthik in his side. Gujarat, too, had their share of India cap-holders, with Axar Patel and Piyush Chawla being led by Parthiv Patel. Gujarat needed a win, while Tamil Nadu needed anything but a defeat. A no-result would have put Tamil Nadu into the final, with the tournament rules stating that head to head results would be the tie-breaker if both sides had an equal number of wins coming into a knockout match, and Tamil Nadu had beaten Gujarat when both teams faced each other in the league stages in Group C.
Unsurprisingly then, Karthik chose to field first on winning the toss, with one eye on the grey clouds in the distance.
The clouds remained all day, but the rain didn't arrive, as the match began at 10.30am, an hour and a half after the scheduled start.
Priyank Panchal and Parthiv, the Gujarat openers, have been their two most dependable top-order batsmen over the last few years. Their solid opening partnerships had led Gujarat to nine wins in ten matches in the tournament thus far. Before the game, the only time both Gujarat openers failed was in the defeat against Tamil Nadu. So when they both fell inside the fifth over to Ashwin and Washington respectively, it seemed that Tamil Nadu had taken an early stranglehold on the match. A brief partnership of 45 between No. 3 Bhargav Merai (20) and No. 4 Dhruv Raval (40) then followed, which helped Gujarat negate the early damage done by the Tamil Nadu spinners, but a middle-order collapse once again handed Tamil Nadu the advantage. M Mohammed was the wrecker-in-chief during the middle overs. After Merai fell to T Natarajan, Mohammed struck off his first delivery to dismiss Raval when he edged a drive to the slip cordon. In the same spell, Manpreet Juneja (12) and Karan Patel (4) fell victim to Mohammed's nippy deliveries. By the time Karan was out in the 21st over, Gujarat were tottering at 102 for 6.
The handful of spectators kept switching their support from one team to the other, almost as if one moment they wanted nothing more than to see a heavyweight clash between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the final, but the next they realised they'd much rather see a proper contest right now than sometime in the future and began screaming for Axar Patel to push Gujarat towards a respectable total.
In Chawla's company, Axar added 23 for the seventh wicket. The eighth-wicket stand with Roosh Kalaria lasted only six balls, but in No. 10 Chintan Gaja, Axar found someone with whom he could bat out the full 40 overs. Together they made 26 runs but Axar perished for 37 trying to clear the long-on boundary. Gujarat's tenth-wicket partnership still had 3.2 overs to bat, and with Gaja leading the way, they added 18 more to finish on 177 for 9.
Tamil Nadu's chase began poorly, with Vijay chopping Gaja onto his stumps for 3. Axar and Kalaria bowled a tight spell with the new ball, allowing Tamil Nadu to score only 25 runs in the first eight overs. Axar then struck as No. 3 B Aparajith guided an attempted cut into Parthiv's gloves to rock Tamil Nadu further, but just like the Gujarat innings, a rescue effort from the third-wicket partnership followed. Abhinav had survived the tricky period with the new ball, and he opened up in No. 4 Karthik's company. The experienced duo motored along in a 45-run third-wicket stand to bring the game into the balance, as Abhinav held up one end and Karthik took on the boundary riders. But the wickets of both set batsmen, on either side of Vijay Shankar's dismissal, gave Gujarat the look-in they needed. With 15 overs to go on a surface that was two-paced all day, Tamil Nadu, with two new batsmen at the crease, needed 81 to qualify for the final.
By now, Tamil Nadu had slipped behind the VJD par and some nervous moments followed as the skies turned dark once again. But there was no inclement weather. Instead, there was a storm from Shahrukh's bat.
With his partner Washington nudging the ball around for singles (twos were difficult because of the ground's dimensions), Shahrukh took on the other Gujarat bowlers, first slapping Kalaria to point for four before depositing Chawla's googly over long-on. That brought the crowd - by now, prepared for a Tamil Nadu defeat - back to life, with the batting team needing 27 off 24 balls. Over the next two overs, Shahrukh guided Axar to the third-man boundary and followed it with a flat-batted six off Kalaria over long-off to bring the equation to 11 off the final two overs.
In the penultimate over, Washington thumped a four off the first ball, after which Shahrukh drilled a full toss over long-off to seal Tamil Nadu's win. Such was the fervour during the final stages of the chase that Shahrukh didn't even acknowledge his half-century till the end of the game.
The result means that Tamil Nadu have reached a domestic final for the first time since 2016/2017.
Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo