Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
SA-W in ENG (1)
IRE v IND (1)
WI v BDESH (1)
ENG v NZ (1)
County DIV1 (4)
County DIV2 (3)
Dinesh Karthik made his T20 debut in India's first-ever T20I in Johannesburg in December 2006 and bagged the Man-of-the-match award. Four months later, he took over as Tamil Nadu's captain after S Badrinath suffered an injury and led them to glory in the inaugural edition of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
This was in April 2007. The inaugural IPL season was a year away.
Now, almost a decade-and-a-half later, Karthik has rallied a young Tamil Nadu side to their second domestic T20 title.
Karthik, the captain, and R Prasanna, the assistant coach, are the only members of the current squad who were part of the 2006-07 success. Does Karthik feel old among this group?
"With these guys, I don't feel that old and all. Age is just a number," Karthik tells ESPNcricinfo. "I always feel if you're fit and passing those tests, you're good enough to play the sport. At least I don't give too much importance to age and for me with age, experience has come. So, it's my duty to play the tough situations and help the boys with whatever little I know. More importantly, these boys are keyed on and there isn't much you need to do. You just have to guide them and make sure they're doing most things right."
Having narrowly lost the final against Karnataka in 2019-20, Tamil Nadu had only one week or so to prepare for this season in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, but once the squad assembled at Chepauk, Karthik made his point.
"I just told them it's going to be a short tournament - just five (league) games, and if you slip up in a game, you'll be behind the run-rate and it's going to be tough to qualify. Every game you had to be on point and they just did that from game one. Even though our preparation was short, it was very good and pertinent to what we would be encountering. Thanks to the TNCA for giving the ground for around a week where we were able to play practice games."
The most striking feature of Tamil Nadu's unbeaten run to the title was that they found a hero for every situation. N Jagadeesan, the season's top run-getter, and C Hari Nishanth forged a strong partnership at the top in the league phase and when their form cooled off in the knockouts, the middle order stepped up.
In the quarter-finals, Himachal Pradesh seamer Vaibhav Arora swung out Tamil Nadu's top order and when Karthik was caught behind for 2, they were 66 for 5 in a chase of 136. The power of M Shahrukh Khan and the calmness of B Aparajith, however, ushered them home. Then, Rajasthan ran away to a fast start in the semi-finals, but M Mohammed and the spinners reined them in. Karthik and KB Arun Karthik, the senior-most players in the set-up, coolly completed the chase on a tricky pitch. Then, in the final, Tamil Nadu's spin quartet nearly made it a no-contest against Baroda.
"I'm extremely proud [of this run]," Karthik says. "So many positives to take out of this actually - all the top-six batsmen contributed. Shahrukh Khan got 88 runs and out of it, he hit 10 sixes [seven], I think, and that just shows the power he has. Hari Nishanth and Jagadeesan... and KB obviously, he played an important knock in the semi-final.
"I'm very happy with the batting and bowling I don't need to say; we've been very consistent with the bowling and a couple of players even came back from injury like [Aswin] Crist and all. So, good to see the competition and the way these boys are shaping up, it's good for Tamil Nadu."
After warming the benches at Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2020 and then at Tamil Nadu for the first seven matches this season, M Siddharth returned 4 for 20 in the final. The tracks for the quarter-finals and semi-finals in Ahmedabad had favoured swing and seam, but the one that was rolled out for the final turned from the get-go. The Tamil Nadu management assessed the conditions perfectly and let Siddharth loose on a right-hander-heavy Baroda line-up. R Sai Kishore went wicketless, meanwhile, but conceded just 11 runs.
"Saidu is a gun bowler and I hope the IPL scouts have a look at him. He and Sai Kishore are quality bowlers and we are blessed to have bowlers like that. Saidu, again credit to Prasanna who is a very good strategist and he felt the wicket could turn. I also felt let's play Saidu and we knew what Saidu could do."
Another Tamil Nadu player who is on the radar of IPL scouts, and already attending trials, is Shahrukh. He had gone unsold at the previous auction, but Karthik is sure he has done enough to be picked up by one of the franchises this year.
"Shahrukh Khan - he's just got pure power," Karthik said. "He hits the ball long, but the most important thing is when he got an opportunity, he stayed not out in those chases. He made it look much easier than what it actually was."
M Ashwin lost his mother just before the start of the tournament, but the legspinner opted to join the Tamil Nadu side and move from one bubble to another. Karthik lauds Ashwin's mental fortitude - both on and off the field.
"It's amazing - just his attitude," Karthik says. "Not once did he make us feel that he's lost somebody so dear to him. He bowled a lot of death overs for us, bowling to tough batsmen, and making sure that he gets the wicket of them."
Karthik also reckons that the familiarity and camaraderie among the group - most of them have played together in age-group cricket or in the TNPL - helped them deal better with bubble life.
"This is a very tight-knit bunch, and we had a lot of fun and games amongst ourselves. We didn't find it [bubble life] to be that hard to be honest, but yes there were challenges. Since, we are a very tight-knit group, we countered it very well. It was like a couple of guys playing in the corridor, we were playing cards and a couple of times we had dance nights where everyone were dancing to songs."
The tournament ended on a similar note for Tamil Nadu, with Karthik and his boys grooving together after lifting the trophy.