Soon after Tamil Nadu beat Karnataka inside two days in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy quarterfinal in Visakhapatnam, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, their new coach, was asked when he would smile. His reply was that only after the team won the title. They however lost to Mumbai in the semifinal, and missed out on finishing on top of the South Zone table in the inter-state Twenty20 Championship by a net run-rate difference of 1.049. But the smile was in place after Tamil Nadu beat Bengal by 37 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi on Monday (March 20) to cap off a promising season.
Right from the time they had a pre-season camp in Dehradun under the guidance of Kanitkar, L Balaji, the bowling coach, Thulasi Ram, the physiotherapist, and Ramji Srinivasan, the trainer, to tackle the challenges of constant travelling and playing at neutral venues with a relatively young squad, Tamil Nadu played an attacking brand of cricket, always looking to force a result. That they won their fifth 50-over title – the first since 2009-10 – was just reward for their meticulous planning, their intent and their innovative training techniques.
After they were bowled out for 217 in the final – their lowest score in the tournament while batting first – Tamil Nadu’s gameplan was to create dot-ball pressure on a slowish surface and cut down the boundaries. It resulted in Abhimanyu Easwaran committing to a suicidal run and Agniv Pan trying to force the pace of the game off the second ball he faced. The turning point came in the 13th over when Shreevats Goswami stepped out to flick Rahil Shah only to see Vijay Shankar, the captain, dive full length to his left and take a brilliant two-handed catch. It was as much a result of Vijay’s athleticism as it was a product of Tamil Nadu having bowled 55 dot balls in 12.4 overs before Goswami’s wicket. They ended up bowling 166 dot balls while bowling Bengal out for 180 in 45.5 overs. Similarly, they had bowled 170 dot balls in the semifinal to reduce Baroda from 92 for no loss to 219 all out at the same venue.
Hrishikesh Kanitkar on Dinesh Karthik: “Dinesh bats at a different level. He is a very senior player, and is able to adjust and play. He really doesn’t need any inputs from me. I believe in giving him his space. The key is taking responsibility. When he got out in Lahli, caught at square-leg off Balwinder Sandhu, he knew he had played a bad shot. No one needed to tell him that. I left it to him and said whatever you do is fine. As long as you take responsibility for that, I am fine with everything.”
That game also had three brilliant catches in the outfield as Baroda lost two wickets in consecutive deliveries twice in their innings, and never recovered from that. Tamil Nadu bowled out the opposition in eight out of their nine games. Of the 87 wickets that they took, 45 were catches, six were run outs and two were stumpings.
Television commentators praised Tamil Nadu’s fielding. What went behind it was a “fielding fitness” camp that was arranged in Chennai before the start of the tournament.
“The fielding fitness programme was first introduced in the Indian team in 2011, and we brought it to the Tamil Nadu squad this year,” Ramji, who has with the Indian team till 2013, told Wisden India. “It is about incorporating practical aspects of fielding into fitness, like cutting angles, going down and collecting the ball, and attacking the stumps as quickly as possible. This requires solid agility, reaction time and speed and has to be combined with fielding skills. There are more than a hundred drills, and we did around seven to eight of them in the camp. The boys deserve all the credit for taking those catches under pressure, and I don’t want any credit. But surely this is the level of fielding fitness we wanted to achieve.”
What is remarkable about the fielding performance is that it has come at the fag end of a hectic season. Ramji said that it was a result of cohesive teamwork.
“Hrishi, Balaji, Thulasi and the fielding coach have all contributed to this,” he offered. “We did coordinated planning, focussing on recovery processes and being very specific with what we wanted for a batter, wicketkeeper, spinner, pacer and as a fielding unit instead of just making them lift weights and do regular training. Also it was important to keep the mind fresh and keep the boys enthusiastic throughout.”
While the team’s performance speaks for itself, Aswin Crist benefitted the most from the planning. It is very rare for a bowler to be among the top wicket-takers in both red-ball and white-ball formats in one domestic season in India, but Crist defied odds. After finishing as Tamil Nadu’s second-best bowler with 35 wickets in the Ranji Trophy, he topped the Vijay Hazare bowling charts with 20 scalps in nine games at an average of 17.65, an economy rate of 5.10 and a strike-rate of 20.7. He took a total of 60 wickets in 405.4 overs for Tamil Nadu – a remarkable achievement for a 22-year-old in his first season as the leader of the bowling unit. Kanitkar felt Balaji’s inputs were responsible for keeping the bowling unit hungry through the season.
“The credit for bowling success goes to Balaji. He has worked hard and shared all his knowledge with the bowlers,” said Kanitkar. “Aswin has come a long way from what he was in the pre-season to what he is today.”
Like Crist’s bowling, Dinesh Karthik’s batting was one of the talking points of the season. He made 704 runs in the Ranji Trophy, and upped his game to another level in the 50-over championship. His 112 in the final, where the next highest score in Tamil Nadu’s innings was 32, took his season tally to 607 runs – the most in one edition of the tournament.
Kanitkar said the turnaround in Karthik’s batting came after he got out to a rash shot in the second innings of the first Ranji game against Mumbai in Lahli. In that match, Karthik’s dismissal led to Tamil Nadu losing their last seven wickets for 56 runs, and losing by two wickets.
“Dinesh bats at a different level. He is a very senior player, and is able to adjust and play. He really doesn’t need any inputs from me. I believe in giving him his space. Our discussion is usually about the approach in a match. The key is taking responsibility,” said Kanitkar. “When he got out in Lahli, caught at square-leg off Balwinder Sandhu, he knew he had played a bad shot. No one needed to tell him that. I only told him to weigh his options in that particular situation – which is the least risky yet gives you the result. I left it to him and said whatever you do is fine. As long as you take responsibility for that, I am fine with everything.”
Ramji Srinivasan on Tamil Nadu’s innovative fielding programme: “The fielding fitness programme was first introduced in the Indian team in 2011, and we brought it to the Tamil Nadu squad this year. It is about incorporating practical aspects of fielding into fitness, like cutting angles, going down and collecting the ball, and attacking the stumps as quickly as possible. This requires solid agility, reaction time and speed and has to be combined with fielding skills. The boys deserve all the credit for taking those catches under pressure, and I don’t want any credit. But surely this is the level of fielding fitness we wanted to achieve.”
Karthik, the senior-most member in the squad, was also a guiding hand for Vijay in the absence of Abhinav Mukund, who is with the Indian Test squad. Karthik and Vijay together planned bowling changes and field placements, and it resulted in Tamil Nadu not conceding 300 even once in the tournament.
“I kept things really simple, and the bowlers did a great job for me. I gave them their space and we aimed at getting teams all out. We did that in all games except against Kerala,” pointed out Vijay. “With the current team, things are easy because everyone is playing for everyone. No one is worried about being dropped if there is a need to fit in someone else. We brought Sai Kishore for the quarterfinal and semifinal, and he was ready. Everyone is ready. It’s a good sign from a captain’s point of view.”
Apart from his captaincy being impressive in both the T20 and 50-over formats, the manner in which Vijay made a comeback after recovering from a knee surgery also contributed to Tamil Nadu’s success. He made an unbeaten half-century in the semifinal, and in the final, he took the catch to send back Goswami and bowled Manoj Tiwary, his opposite number.
Kanitkar revealed that the loss to Hyderabad in the T20 competition, which cost them a position at the top of the table, did have an impact in the manner in which the team approached the rest of the season. Chasing 166 for a win in that game, they had been dismissed for 93.
“It was a very hurtful as we missed (the top spot) by a small margin. The quality of cricket we demand from ourselves was missed in that loss against Hyderabad,” the coach said. “We follow a certain process, but in that game the batsmen did not tick all the boxes. In the hindsight, it allowed us to shake ourselves out of our complacency and not take anything for granted.”
The season has ended with a title, but Kanitkar remained a tough nut to crack.
“We have made sure we focus on improving every day. It is not always about the numbers. We want to keep growing as players as well as a team. So, our primary focus is to keep to our game no matter what the results are,” he said, sharing the philosophy the team bought into, even while crediting the likes of Kaushik Gandhi, Ganga Sridhar Raju and B Aparajith for making significant contributions with the bat. “If we keep playing to the best of our abilities and do it consistently then we will have consistent results. Apart from that we don’t want to get too much into analysing the opponent because ultimately the team has to deliver. We are firm about that part. Right now we are still building the team. I am not surprised (with the season’s achievements from a young side) because there is a lot of talent and the boys are prepared to do hard work. Me and Bala are trying to show them the right direction and help them along the way.”