Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Dinesh Karthik, the lone centurion for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy final, has blamed the Chepauk pitch for spoiling his team's chances of winning the title. The pitch became the focal point of the debate after Rajasthan amassed 621 runs across the first three days, taking advantage of a surface that was devoid of any bounce or pace. Though the game was drawn, Rajasthan took the title on first-innings points.
The Rajasthan opening pair of Vineet Saxena and Aakash Chopra remained unconquered on a tedious first day when only 221 runs were scored.
"To some extent, yes," Karthik said, when asked if he would blame the pitch for Tamil Nadu finishing as runners-up. "Because after playing eight quality games you come up for the final only to realise it is going to be so toss-based. Any game for that matter should not be toss-based. There should be a pitch for both batsmen and bowlers. That is the key to sport, a contest." Karthik's previous century in a Ranji final came when Tamil Nadu played Mumbai at the same venue in the 2003-04 season.
Incidentally the pitch for the final was the same surface Tamil Nadu had played Madhya Pradesh (group game) and Maharashtra (quarter-finals). In both those games, Tamil Nadu managed to bowl out the opposition at least once, but in the final they were made to toil fruitlessly. The fears of a weary pitch were realised completely: if the lack of pace on the dry pitch kept the fast bowlers parched, the spinners were hurt by the lack of bounce.
Describing the pitch, Karthik said it was initially slow to start on day one and the cracks started getting wider over the subsequent days. "It is a little annoying to bat on (after day 3) you cannot play freely. If you are a positive player, there are not many shots you can play because you are not going to get value for your shots. That is why the run rate remained consistent at 2 to 2.2 types."
On the penultimate day, the pitch had become extremely slow. Still, Karthik's century was the best innings in terms of strokeplay. It did not come easy, Karthik stressed. "It was far more difficult to bat than on what it was at the start of the match. The wicket was slow throughout the game but it became slower from the third day and the odd ball was keeping low and the cracks were opening."
Karthik failed to understand why such an important match could not be hosted on a better pitch, which would have retained the balance between bat and ball. He even cited the examples of venues like Mumbai and Baroda being fit to host the domestic season's most important match. "I am disappointed at the fact that we cannot play on a wicket like a Wankhede or Baroda (Moti Bagh) wickets which are conducive to both batting and bowling. The scoreline would have been much more different."
However, Karthik credited the Rajasthan bowlers for maintaining accurate lines and the batsmen for their admirable patience. Tamil Nadu suffered a setback as soon as they started their innings after the new ball pair of Rituraj Singh and Pankaj Singh sent back their top order by bowling fast and keeping the length full. Being in the field for the first eight sessions had affected the hosts' batsmen mentally and physically.
"It is very easy for me to say that the Rajasthan bowlers bowled well and they definitely did that. But there is no doubting the fact they had a cushion of 620 runs," Karthik said. "And they bowled to their strengths, bowling in straight lines consistently."
At the same time the, Karthik did not blame his own bowlers for failing to stall the opposition. "Our bowlers did a fantastic job throughout the season but this was the game where the Rajasthan batsmen applied themselves and the wicket was very good to bat on (on the first two days) and they did not make any mistake at all."
Karthik appreciated Saxena's relaxed demeanour throughout his marathon knock of 257, spread across 907 minutes. "It is very difficult to concentrate for such long periods of time without making a mistake and that was fantastic. Nor did he play a false stroke."
Comparatively, Tamil Nadu were hurt by the lack of partnerships: if Rajasthan had one double-century and two century partnerships, the highest for the hosts was the 76-run alliance between Karthik and R Prasanna for the fourth wicket. "To put it simply, there were about fifteen sessions in the game and they won all fifteen whether it be batting and bowling. Their lowest partnership must have been close to a hundred. We could not even get one hundred partnership and they had a double-hundred partnership. That is how good they were."
Despite failing to win the title once again, Karthik said there was no need for any drastic measures. In fact, he said the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association had supported the players by retaining the group across the last few years. If anything, he said Tamil Nadu should be proud. "In all honesty, to finish No.2 is nothing to be ashamed about. It was a proud achievement the way we have played our cricket. It was the only game in the entire Ranji Trophy we had lost and it says a lot about this team."
Karthik said the bowling attack, led by L Balaji was a big improvement over the previous years. However, he picked one area of improvement. "I would love to see a pool of spinners to choose from. At the moment I see four spinners - two left-armers and two off spinners - (so) I would like see a leg spinner who can come and help us."