When Tamil Nadu walk into Wankhede Stadium for their Ranji Trophy semi-final match against Mumbai, they will be weighed low by the burden of history. If there is one side Tamil Nadu would rather not face in the Ranji Trophy - especially in a knockout fixture - it would have to be Mumbai. Twenty-two times, these two sides have clashed in India's premier first-class tournament. Tamil Nadu have come out on top just twice, whereas Mumbai have won on 13 occasions. Additionally, Mumbai have taken the first-innings lead in five of the seven games that ended in draws. Counting those leads as wins, the head-to-head record stands at a whopping 18-4 in Mumbai's favour. To say that Tamil Nadu are the underdogs in this particular battle is to grossly understate a fact.
Such an overwhelmingly one-sided record cannot be explained by ability, since Tamil Nadu are otherwise among the more consistent first-class sides. Their troubles against Mumbai are clearly mental in nature, as evidenced by the recent knock-out history between the two. After their previous title win in 1987-88, Tamil Nadu have fallen at the final hurdle four times. On two of those occasions, Mumbai were their bugbears. Take away the pressure of a knockout game, and Tamil Nadu's record begins to look better; for instance, the last two head-to-heads between these sides were in the group stage and Tamil Nadu got the decisive first-innings lead both times.
No single encounter highlights the extent of Mumbai's psychological stranglehold over Tamil Nadu better than the semi-final of the 1999-2000 season, also played at Wankhede. After being asked to bat, Tamil Nadu bossed Mumbai's bowlers thanks to big centuries from Hemang Badani and Robin Singh. The pair's free-scoring helped Tamil Nadu race past 400 in only 91 overs - the sort of situation that forces bowling units to throw in the towel. Not Mumbai, though. Ajit Agarkar sliced through the lower order to push Tamil Nadu from 403 for 4 to 485, still a strong position in a knockout game.
Once Tamil Nadu removed Wasim Jaffer and Jatin Paranjpe cheaply, Mumbai needed to summon every ounce of their khadoos [defiant] mindset to get the first-innings lead. It helped that they had one Sachin Tendulkar, who went on to play the Ranji innings of his life. Mumbai were still 36 shy of Tamil Nadu's score when they lost their eighth wicket. Nos. 10 and 11 did not add a single run, but hung around to assist Tendulkar who made a masterly, unbeaten 233 to push Mumbai ahead. Their first-innings lead was worth only five runs, but it was enough to break Tamil Nadu's spirit. The visitors crumbled to 171 in the second innings and Mumbai marched past the target for the loss of just two wickets. Tendulkar would go on to rate the win as the finest moment of his Ranji career.
Tamil Nadu have one survivor from that heartbreak - Jayaraman Gokulakrishnan, who was their first-change fast bowler in that match, is now the team's bowling coach. He remembers the game quite vividly, especially Tendulkar's masterclass, but he also rues Tendulkar's early drop that cost Tamil Nadu the game, in hindsight.
"Very clearly, Sachin's knock was the difference in that game," Gokulakrishnan told ESPNcricinfo. "He has himself gone on to say it was one of his best innings. But that missed opportunity [the fielder was J Madanagopal] cost us dearly.
"It was disheartening to fall behind after the fantastic knocks from Badani and Robin. After reaching 400-odd for four, at one point we thought that's it - we have qualified. But we completely lost momentum to lose the last six wickets cheaply, and that worked in Mumbai's favour.
"One thing different about Mumbai is the self-belief they have. Having won the Ranji Trophy so many times, they don't give up in any situation. I remember the entire TN team thought the game was over once Tendulkar got them the lead."
Prod Gokulakrishnan further and he recalls another nugget. "I distinctly remember that the match was originally supposed to be played a few days earlier. But Tendulkar was in London where he was playing an ICC game, and requested that it be shifted so that he could play. It was a great experience for us to play against him, but it was equally striking that he was so keen to participate in that match."
Gokulakrishnan will be cautioning his wards against repeating the errors from 12 years back, if Tamil Nadu are to overcome their hoodoo against their most feared opponents. It isn't over until the last ball is bowled, especially in a Ranji knockout game against Mumbai.