The 2021-22 season of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy was entertaining and competitive enough to be a reassuring sign of a return to normalcy. The cracking sound off the bat, the sight of cricket balls being frequently deposited into the stands, and the din of boisterous cheers from the dugout made up for the lack of spectators. Heroic feats and surprises were aplenty to make it a tournament to savour.
There were no surprises overall, however. As expected, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the two southern Indian heavyweights, made it all the way to the summit clash, brushing their way past the crowd of 36 other teams. And it wasn’t without a reason — they were both strong teams boasting well-known stars and both had tasted success in the recent past. Tamil Nadu would have been keen to avenge the narrowest of narrow defeats — margin — 1 run — in the final of the same tourney in 2019-20; the victory on November 22, therefore, would have been sweet.
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The TN team didn’t have standout performers but was impressive collectively. Lionhearted individual efforts during the knockouts — by captain Vijay Shankar in the quarterfinals and seamer P. Saravana Kumar in the semifinals — meant it stood out when it mattered, in contrast to Maharashtra, a team with similar success in the group stage. For Karnataka, the reliable hands Manish Pandey and Karun Nair stood out with the bat, scoring five half-centuries between them, while spinner K. C. Cariappa and K. Gowtham accounted for 17 wickets together and ensured a collective economy rate of less than 6.
Luck was the other ingredient as Karnataka was nearly ousted in the quarterfinals by Bengal. Bengal’s eighth-wicket pair Ritwik Roy Chowdhury and Akash Deep gathered 19 runs off the five deliveries of the final over of the contest and needed just one more to win. Akash Deep, then, decided to tap and run and was run-out by Karnataka captain Pandey who swooped down on the ball and effected a direct hit. Karnataka was to prevail in the Super Over. It was deja vu for Akash Deep, whose bizarre run-out in the final of the Ranji Trophy in 2019-20 had similarly smashed his team’s hopes of regaining the first-class title after 30 years.
Such fine margins meant a difference between success and failure for Delhi and Mumbai, too. Delhi started well, winning three of its first three games before losing to Hyderabad in a cliff-hanger in Gurugram. A victory would have appeared on the horizon in the 18th over of Hyderabad’s innings when 33 were needed off 17 deliveries with just three wickets in hand. But it wasn’t to be as Hyderabad got home on the final delivery. And with another narrow defeat to Saurashtra a day later, Delhi was knocked out.
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For Mumbai, the one-run loss to Chhattisgarh turned out to be fatal. Just one more win would have ensured its berth in the knockouts at the expense of Karnataka.
Baroda, the 2020-21 finalist, fell apart in the tournament, losing four games out of five and finishing at the bottom of Elite Group B. Hyderabad, on the other hand, impressed, clinching a rare semifinal spot in a top-level domestic tournament. The captain Tanmay Agarwal led from the front, finishing as the top run-getter, while C. V. Milind, the left-arm seamer, finished as the top wicket-taker.
Agarwal, Milind, and the rest of the top run-getters and wicket-takers in the tournament were all established names, again underlying the fact that experience and nous do matter in T20s. At No. 3 among batters was Ajinkya Rahane, who is known better for his expertise in first-class cricket. Rahane scored four half-centuries in five matches at a strike rate of 133.64.
And at No. 5 was Manan Vohra. Vohra may not be in the limelight as he was seven years ago, but he is still around and piling on the runs for Chandigarh. Vohra was one of three batters to score a century this season even as his team continued to flounder.
Among the bowlers, five of the top six wicket-takers were seamers, perhaps suggesting the effectiveness of seam bowling in nippy conditions.
Just as in the T20 World Cup, more matches were won by teams batting second than by those batting first. But unlike the T20 World Cup, it doesn’t suggest an overall trend: the teams that succeeded were potent and knew how to seize the big, crucial moments, regardless of whether they were batting or fielding first.
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