This season, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy assumed greater importance than usual, with a schedule tweak slotting it before the IPL auction. Whether because of it or not, the competition was a notch higher, relative unknowns made a big splash and we had two not-universally-expected semi-finalists in Rajasthan and Haryana. Also, word is that before the semi-finals in Surat, R Ashwin and Mayank Agarwal are available to play for Tamil Nadu and Karnataka respectively.
Here's a look at some of the talking points before the final-four contests.
Semi-final 1 - Haryana v Karnataka in Surat, 2.30pm
Karnataka did stretch their remarkable winning spree
to 15 games, but then came unstuck against Baroda's Lukman Meriwala to go down by 14 runs. After that, though, they were back to their awesome selves, putting up a 5-1 win-loss record in the group stage - they finished behind Baroda on net run rate - and winning three of their four Super League games.
They come into the semi-final without momentum, though, as the loss
came against Mumbai in their last Super League game. That's pretty similar to Haryana, who had their own super streak of nine wins in a row this season. They lost to Mumbai by eight wickets in their first group game, but then won six in a row to make it to the Super League as the second-ranked team in Group D, behind only Mumbai. That spree went up to nine as they won their first three Super League games, enough to put them in the semi-finals even though they lost the last game
to Maharashtra by two runs. Yuzvendra Chahal's presence has been of great benefit to Haryana, as he has almost always kept things tight and been among the wickets, and if they can beat star-studded Karnataka, it would be something to crow about.
Remember the medium-pacer who was such a familiar face at the IPL? Well, he is very much around, and is now a batting option at the top of the Haryana order too. Pushed up, Patel has hit 340 runs from 11 innings, including two half-centuries, and has scored his runs at a strike rate of 165.04. That's put him at No. 8 in the run-scorers' chart too, and he is second
on the wicket-takers' list too, with 18 strikes from 11 innings with an economy rate of 6.87. There's a medium-pace-bowling allrounder made for the format.
Padikkal, just 19, has been one of the stories of the domestic circuit in recent times, the latest in a long line of fantastic Karnataka batsmen. He's brought his form to this competition, sitting pretty atop the charts with 461 runs from ten innings
, with one swashbuckling century and four fifties, an average of 65.85, and a spectacular strike rate of 173.96. Padikkal also has the record for most sixes in the tournament so far - 27 - and his tally of 45 fours is only behind Mumbai man Aditya Tare's 49.
Semi-final 2 - Tamil Nadu v Rajasthan in Surat, 6.30pm
It's a repeat of the Group B fixture early on in the competition, when Tamil Nadu, riding on good hands with the bat from a number of their stalwarts and R Sai Kishore's 3 for 19 emerged 39-run victors
. That was on November 9, far away from Surat in Thumba in Kerala. A lot has happened since then, but Tamil Nadu continue to look the stronger of the two sides based on their progress to the semi-finals. And R Ashwin's presence.
In Group B, Tamil Nadu lost just the one game
, against Uttar Pradesh, when their opponents chased down the 169 with one ball in hand.
Rajasthan, apart from losing to Tamil Nadu, also lost to Vidarbha
by one run (VJD method), and then lost two of their four Super League games, to Baroda
, before beating Maharashtra and Delhi to make the final four. This, even as Tamil Nadu, except an insipid performance
against Karnataka, have looked solid in beating Mumbai, Punjab and Jharkhand.
All said, it needs to be remembered that this one will be played under lights. How much of an effect will the dew have?
Then we come to the numbers the 23-year-old left-arm spinner has recorded this season: 19 wickets from ten innings, returns of 4 for 6 against Tripura the best of his outings; his economy rate is a measly 4.21, and he has an average of 8.84. Remember, most of this is in the powerplay. One man can't win a tournament, but Tamil Nadu have been well-served by Sai Kishore this season - aided by some very spin-friendly tracks - and if they do go on to win the tournament, the young man would have been the big reason for it.
There isn't an outsider like Sai Kishore to prop up for Rajasthan, though Ankit Lamba
has been steady without being spectacular as the batting frontman and quicks Aniket Choudhary
and Khaleel Ahmed
have been among the wickets. But Deepak Chahar, after his heroics internationally, has kept up the good work for Rajasthan, with 11 wickets from six innings including the hat-trick-that-wasn't. And just in case anyone thought he was one-dimensional, there's the 55* from 42 balls
from No. 7 that gave Rajasthan a two-run win over Delhi in the last game.