Three finals in the past three seasons. Three domestic T20 titles overall. Tamil Nadu secured their most recent title in the absence of their seniors - Dinesh Karthik, R Ashwin, M Vijay, Abhinav Mukund, B Aparajith and Washington Sundar. This is how Tamil Nadu have become the most dominant force in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
A well-rounded squad
Tamil Nadu's current side has almost all the ingredients needed to succeed in T20 cricket. They have a reliable legspinner in M Ashwin, a tall fingerspinner who can bowl across phases in R Sai Kishore, an explosive finisher in Shahrukh Khan, a yorker specialist in T Natarajan, a left-handed opener in C Hari Nishaanth and anchors in N Jagadeesan and Vijay Shankar. All these players bring with them IPL experience and even if they are not available, Tamil Nadu have back-ups in M Siddharth, GS Raju, Vivek Raj, P Saravana Kumar and R Silambarasan, who was more recently part of Chennai Super Kings as a net bowler.
Aparajith's offspin has often been deemed surplus to Tamil Nadu's requirements in the past. But when the team needed him in the 2019-20 white-ball season in the absence of both R Ashwin and Washington, he stepped up to line up the left-handers.
Aparajith was unavailable for this Syed Mushtaq Ali knockouts and was instead on India A duty. Tamil Nadu, however, had another fingerspin-bowling allrounder in R Sanjay Yadav who marked his homecoming from Meghalaya with sharp spells and cameos against Goa and Kerala.
Consistency in selection and role clarity
Hari, Jagadeesan, Vijay and Shahrukh have become regulars on the batting front while Sai Kishore continues to bowl the tough overs at the top-tail of the innings. These players have all earned a consistent run, thus forming the core of a new-look side.
"First thing I'd put down TN's success is to the management that has backed almost the same team in the last three years," Sai Kishore tells ESPNcricinfo. "We haven't had much chopping and changing and if you see, it's more like CSK as we play almost the same team. We all know our roles and what we need to do in the bowling attack. When Ash (M Ashwin) or Momi (M Mohammed) or Sandy (Sandeep Warrier) is coming into bowl or myself, we know our job and say when I go out of the line, everyone else will know. We have that openness in the dressing room, and the coaching staff has backed us always."
Impact of the TNPL
That Tamil Nadu have back-up options for every role and so much depth is down to the 20-over Tamil Nadu Premier League. What started as a league that would entertain the local fans when CSK were serving a two-year suspension from the IPL, has now become a strong feeder to the TN state side and IPL franchises. Cases in point: No.1 Hari to reserve player Saravana Kumar.
When Natarajan was down with a knee injury during the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament, Tamil Nadu roped in Saravana Kumar, who was the top wicket-taker in the 2021 TNPL, with 13 strikes at an economy of 7.84. After leaking 48 runs in 3.3 overs for zero wickets on his TN debut, he struck back in the very next match, bagging 5 for 21 in the semi-final against Hyderabad. B Sai Sudharsan, who was also plucked out of TNPL 2021, played his part for TN, making four thirty-plus scores.
"It has given them the confidence to go out there and express themselves," Tamil Nadu captain Vijay says of the TNPL. "That is why, maybe, we have played three consecutive finals. To qualify for that itself, I feel we've done something right. A lot of credit to the TNPL and the support staff. Sometimes I go with my instincts and when they back you for that, it is easier as a captain. We were on the same page when it came to making decisions. Saravana Kumar took a five-for, but we had to take a call for the final. Nattu [Natarajan] was fit and is one of the best death bowlers not only in Tamil Nadu but also in India.
"Sai Sudharsan, Siddharth or Saravana Kumar everyone played their own game, they got comfortable [in their roles] and ready to accept the challenge at this level. You can't go out in a T20 game and keep hitting. Sometimes, you need to understand the situation. In a couple of games, Jaggi and Hari had to bat out the initial phase, especially against Maharashtra, this may be a small thing, but it matters a lot. I always ask them to put their hands up and be ready for the challenge - it doesn't matter if you lose or don't perform well; it's all a part of life."
Even in the post-Covid era, Tamil Nadu had solid prep in the lead-up to their triumphant Syed Mushtaq Ali campaigns in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The TNCA offered them access to centre-wicket practice at Chepauk and ahead of this season the squad had a camp in Chennai before travelling to Lucknow for the tournament. This, after the conclusion of the TNPL. The intra-squad matches at Chepauk, for example, in 2020-21 helped Shahrukh tune up when he was working his way back from injury.
"Yes, we had a small camp this year in Chennai before going to Lucknow," Vijay recalls. "I think we had one week-ten-day proper camp where he had good net sessions, practice matches, and we had centre-wicket and range-hitting. By the time we came here, we all were pretty prepared for all the situations.
"The conditions, though, were tricky at some points because the toss was getting a bit crucial because of early starts. In the very first game against Maharashtra, we lost the toss, but we still managed to win. That was one of the best games [this season] I'd say and the game against Punjab which was a must-win for us."
If Karthik played good cop-bad cop and got the team together in the past couple of seasons, this was Vijay's turn. After being reappointed as the captain, Vijay's first goal was to recreate the family atmosphere in the dressing room. Once he did that, he knew that everything else would fall in place. He even opted to stay back in the bubble despite becoming a new dad midway through the tournament.
After Tamil Nadu successfully defended their T20 title, he credited the reserve players for their contribution.
"Having been part of Tamil Nadu for the last ten years, I can boldly say that this is one of my best experiences in a dressing-room atmosphere at Tamil Nadu," he gushes. "That is the reason why I credited the reserve players at the presentation and even before the presentation, in every team meeting, I'd mention their contribution because I've been in their shoes before.
"I have sat out so many games. I know how difficult it is to sit out and still keep yourself motivated, still to train. Those guys never missed a single training session, and unfortunately, because of the time constraints we had due to the bubble, a few guys couldn't even have a proper hit in the nets. But still, they were pushing themselves every day, which is a very good sign."
According to Vijay, the extra responsibility also resulted in an upsurge in his batting. He finished the tournament with 199 runs in six innings at an average of 66.33 and a strike rate of 130.92.
"It [Captaincy] has also helped me in my batting," he says. "I was playing to the situation, and captaincy helped me to take more responsibility. After one of the IPLs I said, if I have a set role, I can perform better. This season I batted at No.4 or No.5, and I think, I did pretty well with an average of close to 65, which is really good for the team. This was probably the first time where almost every individual was together in the same room. We used to do something or the other, and we enjoyed it a lot."