In the past few seasons, Tamil Nadu have been the Ranji Trophy's nearly-men. A bunch of recognisable faces with varying levels of international experience have marked them out as title contenders. Yet, silverware has eluded them. The team that possesses one of the strongest batting line-ups on the domestic circuit has lacked the killer punch needed to produce more outright wins. While the batting has looked in rude health, the bowling has lacked the same kind of consistency, owing to the relatively inexperienced combination.
In five completed games this season (their opening game against Baroda was washed out), Tamil Nadu managed just one outright win amid four draws. Their unbeaten run gave them a seat in the quarter-finals, where they will meet Maharashtra, who qualified from the Plate league. As they prepare for the match in Chennai on January 2, the team will be looking to redress the balance between bat and ball. Their new captain, L Balaji, has painted a positive picture of the team's bowling resources, which he says have performed creditably despite the lack of outright wins.
"As a captain we're definitely looking at enforcing outright wins," Balaji told ESPNcricinfo. "For that, you need 20 wickets. We have actually achieved that a bit (this season) and in the few matches we missed out, we missed it by a whisker.
"Against Haryana, we took ten wickets on the fourth day and brought the game back, and we almost chased the target down. Against Delhi, we took 20 wickets but we lost out due to bad weather. There are positives. We achieved the 20-wicket mark in three games. As a captain, it's a positive sign that the wickets are being shared by all."
Statistics can be misleading. Since the 2009-10 season, Tamil Nadu have played out 16 draws and managed only four wins. What that doesn't reveal, though, is that at least four games in 2010-11 were affected by rain and their season opener this year, against Baroda in Chennai, was washed out. There have been times, though, when the side has fallen short in seizing crucial opportunities, as the former Tamil Nadu batsman VB Chandrasekar, now a leading commentator on domestic cricket, pointed out last season.
WV Raman, who coached Tamil Nadu for four seasons before moving to Bengal last year, presided over the team's rebuilding stage after the ICL defections. Raman said the bowling is a concern for his former team, which is missing its best bowler, R Ashwin, who has been on national duty since the Ranji season began. Balaji himself has been out of national reckoning for a few years now, but remains the team's spearhead.
"Ranji Trophy is all about a side being able to put runs on the board. But the fact that there is only one outright victory and five draws is an indication that their bowling needs to be looked at," Raman told ESPNcricinfo's audio show The Chatter (which will be published on January 1). "They've got a few youngsters in the side as well. In the past, there have been instances where Tamil Nadu haven't been able to restrict the opponents even after scoring 450 or 500."
In Tamil Nadu's defence, the new-look attack has as many as four playersin their debut season: medium-pacer J Kaushik, and spinners B Aparajith, M Rangarajan and Rahil Shah. Medium-pacer Yo Mahesh leads the team's wickets-chart with 19, while Balaji, spinner R Aushik Srinivas and Kaushik have taken 15 each.
None of those bowlers figure in the top ten wicket-takers this season, but Balaji said performances will improve with time. He singled out Kaushik for making a good impression in his debut season.
"Kaushik and Yomi (Yo Mahesh) have shown a lot of character," Balaji said. "They have shared most of the wickets. We've had quite a few youngsters and it adds a lot of variety. We've given opportunities to the youngsters who have done well in league cricket and they have risen to the challenge. We know that we should not stagnate, and instead look towards the next level."
Raman said the fielding was another thing that had upset the team's progress. "The biggest concern for them will be their catching because it's been very patchy from what I hear and from what I saw in the Bengal game," Raman said. "If they get that right, their bowlers will be made to look twice as good as they are."
Balaji acknowledged that the team needs to sharpen their fielding. "We have a good fielding coach, M Sanjay, who has been working hard on close catching," Balaji said. "I accept we need to improve. We know what aspects we are falling behind in and need to catch up on."
The re-laid pitch at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai has often been on the slower side, which could be one of the reasons for the number of draws. However, Balaji was pleased with the pitch for the previous match, against Madhya Pradesh, which ended in a draw, with Tamil Nadu progressing thanks to first-innings points.
"It [the pitch] was satisfying for me because it had all the flavours. It had a bit of moisture that helped the fast bowlers. We're not asking for green tops but sporting wickets where there's something for everyone. That will keep the momentum going. I was very happy with that pitch and that is good for Tamil Nadu cricket."
While the inexperienced bowling attack may still be a concern ahead of the knockout rounds, the fact that they have taken 20 wickets three times should give Tamil Nadu confidence. All they need is better cooperation from the weather and fielders.