Twenty three years is a long time. When Tamil Nadu last won the Ranji Trophy – in 1988 – the bell bottoms were still in vogue and disco was king.
Can Lakshmipathy Balaji and his men emulate the feat of S. Vasudevan's team at Chepauk when the final gets underway at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium on Thursday? The whole of Tamil Nadu waits with bated breath.
If the host grapples with the pressures of regaining a title long lost, Rajasthan has to cope with a defending champion's stress. It will be a big game that tests nerves.
Rajasthan's dream run from the plate division to lifting the trophy last year was of the spirit-lifting kind. This season, the side has come back from the dead to qualify for the league phase. Teams that return from the brink can be resilient.
While Tamil Nadu has the edge, the final has intriguing possibilities. On a pitch that could favour the pacemen initially and then assist the spinners gradually, batting first should be the right ploy. Surviving the match's first session with minimum damage, putting up a sizable first innings total on board and then dictating the course of the match could be the ideal approach.
Strongest top four
Tamil Nadu has been riding on skipper Balaji's passion and aggression. The side has the strongest top four in the competition in Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund, S. Badrinath and Dinesh Karthik. Happily for the host, the classy Murali Vijay rediscovered his form with a century against Mumbai in the semifinal. His partner Mukund has a whopping 871 runs at 87.10 this season.
And the left-handed R. Prasanna has made runs in crunch situations often combining with a stubborn V. Yomahesh lower down the order; adversity appears to stoke Prasanna's combative instincts.
The host has relied much on its three-pronged pace pack — Balaji has 20 wickets at 22.20, Yomahesh (23 at 25.65) and J. Kaushik (24 at 20.04). Balaji and Yomahesh essentially take the ball away from the right-hander while Kaushik provides the variety by bringing the ball in or straightening it.
Left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas (20 wickets at 35.90) has been steady but off-spinner Sunny Gupta (10 at 41.10) has largely disappointed. Malolan Rangarajan, an attacking off-spinner who believes in flight, could replace Gupta. The host is likely to go in with five bowlers.
Calm and intelligent
Rajasthan skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar is both calm and intelligent. He is a seasoned campaigner who can gradually apply the squeeze on the opposition.
Experienced opener Aakash Chopra can still construct monuments, his partner Vineet Saxena is a determined stone-waller and the left-handed Kanitkar continues to make the right moves with the willow.
However, Robin Bist, a well-organised middle-order batsman, has been the cynosure in the Rajasthan line-up. Bist is the highest scorer so far in the competition this season with 885 runs at 88.50.
The big and strong Pankaj Singh — 32 wickets at 30.40 — has shouldered much of the bowling workload.
The young Rituraj Singh — he can get the sphere to dart around at a reasonable pace — has grabbed headlines with 22 scalps in just three matches at 14.31. The Tamil Nadu top-order might have a job on its hands.
Thin in spin
However, Rajasthan appears rather thin in spin. Both left-arm spinner Gajendra Singh and leg-spinner Vivek Yadav have not really threatened line-ups.
The last time the two sides met — in the semifinal last year in Jaipur — Rajasthan progressed on the basis of first innings lead.
This will be Tamil Nadu's 11th final appearance and Rajasthan's 10th.
Tamil Nadu has won the title twice and Rajasthan once.
The teams (from):
Tamil Nadu: L. Balaji (captain), Abhinav Mukund, M. Vijay, S. Badrinath, K. Dinesh Karthik (wk), K. Shri Vasudeva Das, R. Prasanna, V. Yomahesh, Malolan Rangarajan, J. Kaushik, R. Aushik Srinivas, Sunny Gupta, B. Aprajith, Kaushik Gandhi, & Sunil Sam.
Rajasthan: Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Aakash Chopra, Vineet Saxena, Robin Bist, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Puneet Yadav, Dishant Yagnik (wk), Pankaj Singh, Rituraj Singh, Sumeet Mathur, Gajendra Singh, Vaibhav Deshpande, Shamsher Singh, Vivek Yadav & Aniket Choudhary.
Umpires: Peter Hartley (England) & Vineet Kulkarni; Match Referee: Rajendra Jadeja.
Play begins at 9.30 a.m. On the fifth day, the match will start at 9.15 a.m.
Keywords: Ranji Trophy