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Feature

Tamil Nadu, Mumbai and a mouth-watering Ranji Trophy semi-final

It is a clash between the two in-form teams of the tournament and that means there is plenty to look forward to

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
01-Mar-2024
Tamil Nadu come into the Ranji Trophy semi-final on the back of a seven-match unbeaten streak  •  PTI

Tamil Nadu come into the Ranji Trophy semi-final on the back of a seven-match unbeaten streak  •  PTI

Tamil Nadu last made the Ranji Trophy semi-final in 2016-17. In Rajkot, they ran into a 17-year-old Prithvi Shaw who struck a superb second-innings hundred on first-class debut to turn the tables on them.
Now in 2023-24, TN square off against Mumbai again in what will be a clash of two in-form teams. Mumbai finished with the most points among all 38 teams in the competition, TN recorded five wins in six games after languishing at the bottom of the table with a solitary point from their first two games.
They have leading their staff Sulakshan Kulkarni, a Ranji Trophy winner with Mumbai both as player and coach, to give them valuable insights and tidbits in their quest to make their first final since 2014-15. They'll also have the services of Washington Sundar - released from India's Test squad - and B Sai Sudharsan to lend more balance to the line-up along with B Indrajith and N Jagadeesan.
In the period between then and now, TN have become the behemoths in the white-ball arena, fuelled by a robust club cricket scene and the highly-acclaimed Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) that has unearthed IPL stars like T Natarajan, Varun Chakravarthy and Shahrukh Khan.
Their red-ball prospects haven't exactly suffered, but they've struggled to sustain pockets of good form even though several India players in this period - R Ashwin, M Vijay, Washington, Dinesh Karthik, Abhinav Mukund, S Badrinath and L Balaji - have brought their experience to the set-up.
"When I came down to Chennai for my first meeting with the TNCA, N Srinivasan sir asked me this as the very first question: 'How are we going to win the Ranji Trophy?' I thought that was an excellent starting point, I realised that's been the goal for a long time now," Kulkarni tells ESPNcricinfo.
Their bowling depends heavily on their spinners. R Sai Kishore leads the wickets chart with 47 scalps, and he's found able support from rookie left-arm spinner S Ajith Ram, who is second on the list.
That's one of the reasons why they brought in Kuldeep Sen. It's a different issue that he hasn't had the kind of opportunities he would've liked, but they've seen Sandeep Warrier come of age. Warrier, who moved from Kerala three seasons ago, has upped his fitness and consistency over the past two seasons. This has enabled him to bowl long spells, which in turn reflects that TN haven't entirely relied on rank tuners to choke opponents at home.
"He's one to watch out for, he's bowling wonderfully," Kulkarni says of Warrier who has taken 23 wickets at an average of 22.82. "It's wonderful that the BCCI has introduced fast-bowling contracts. It will be added motivation for domestic fast bowlers to go through the grind and put themselves in the fray to be picked. Sandeep is certainly right up there."
Kulkarni also picks out another point of difference. "The mindset is to go for the kill now, like the good Mumbai sides of old. Take the quarter-final for example. I didn't need to stress on this at all. But everyone knew we had to simply bat once and bat big. No question of a fourth-innings chase. You don't want to be giving a team like Saurashtra a window to try and claw back.
"This is where Sai Kishore has been excellent as captain. He's a bowler's captain. Always looking for wickets. There's no wait-and-watch. This killer instinct has been so wonderful to see throughout. Even after we started the season poorly, there was no panic. This stems right from the top, and I can't be happier."
That Mumbai, their opponents, have waltzed into the semi-final, is a testament to their depth despite numerous challenges.
Ajinkya Rahane, the captain, is battling wretched form. Their most prolific batter over the past four seasons, Sarfaraz Khan, is away on national duty. Shivam Dube, one of their key allrounders, is out with a side strain, while Shaw is only now slowly returning from a serious knee injury that kept him out of the game for six months.
Musheer Khan has stepped in to perform the role his older brother, Sarfaraz, has for a while, making a double-century in the quarter-final. Hardik Tamore and Bhupen Lalwani have shown that grit triumphs over flamboyance. Both Shardul Thakur and Shams Mulani have contributed time and again with both bat and ball, and it seems the stars are aligning for Mumbai.
Amid this, there's a strong backing for Rahane despite having managed just 115 runs in ten innings this season. It's credit to him that he has been able to remain motivated to play domestic cricket even after losing his place in India's Test side, at a time when the Ranji Trophy vs IPL debate has been raging on the sidelines, with Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer losing their central contracts.
For Iyer, the opportunity to play in the semi-final couldn't have come at a better time. It's a chance to prove he still values red-ball cricket as much as he did between 2015 and 2018 when he banged the door down to get selected by India. It's a chance to recreate magic like he did in 2015-16, when Mumbai last won the Ranji Trophy, with Iyer hitting a century on a Pune green top to stun Saurashtra.
As for Rahane, a road back may not exist anymore, but like in Australia during that famous tour in 2020-21, this is a challenge he'll gladly embrace. More than a decade ago, Rahane made tons of runs for Mumbai to earn his place in the India Test XI after being on the bench for 14 matches in a row. Now, he has an opportunity to add another chapter to his rich leadership legacy at a time of personal turmoil.
You couldn't have asked for a more mouth-watering semi-final than this.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo