Karnataka sow the seeds for long-term dominance
Staying unbeaten for 28 first-class matches in a row can't just be attributed to favourable conditions, flat pitches or lack of competition in the domestic circuit. For Karnataka, it isn't merely a reflection of the culture and environment that exists in their dressing room, or the special bond the players have formed over the years. It is the kind of core they have built the team around - a core made of youngsters that stepped up in times of dire need and crisis.
Eleven players from their squad are aged 25 or lesser, only four are above 30, and their oldest player - Vinay Kumar - is yet to turn 31. Karun Nair, the star of the Ranji Trophy final, is 22; Shreyas Gopal, their upcoming allrounder, is 21, Abhimanyu Mithun, their highest wicket-taker last season and among their top three this time, is 25; R Samarth, with two hundreds and two fifties in seven matches this season, was 21 when the season started; and KL Rahul, who scored over 1000 runs last season, and averaged 93 this season along with a Test hundred under his belt, is only 22.
It is the core of this young brigade which propelled them towards success, salvaged them from difficult situations, dominated the oppositions and it is this core, the team believes, which will help them dominate the next five to seven years.
There were times during the season when the team stuttered - the opening pair was not particularly consistent, the team started to concede first-innings leads and wins started becoming draws. The difference compared to the other teams was that the youngsters came forward, and revived the team's confidence, helping them get back to winning ways.
"One of the main reasons is the attitude we have as individuals," Rahul told ESPNcricinfo. "We are all very very aggressive people and we've never taken a backward step or never feared anybody, be it a youngster coming into the team or a player who is a permanent member in the team. It's a very thin line between being confident and overconfident, but we found that right balance for the team and everybody knows their responsibilities and roles very well.
"They play it out to the best of their potential every single time they go out onto the field. That's the biggest advantage our team has. If someone goes for national duty there are three other people who can do the same job that he's doing. That's what this team is made of."
When Rahul was in Australia for the Test series, Kunal Kapoor, who had played only 10 first-class matches before the season started for Karnataka, scored fifties against Tamil Nadu and Railways, and later against Mumbai in their last league game.
When Rahul returned in January, a string of single-digit scores from opener Mayank Agarwal upset the top-order's stability. That's when they decided to try Samarth. He opened with Robin Uthappa against Madhya Pradesh and scored a patient 57. He could not convert the starts he got against Baroda and Uttar Pradesh, but came good against heavyweights Mumbai with 180, against Assam with 178 in the quarter-final and with a fifty against Mumbai again, in the semi-final.
Karnataka had to let go of another key player when Stuart Binny was selected for the tri-series in Australia and the World Cup.This gave an opportunity to Gopal, who came into the team as a legspinner but has taken up the role of an allrounder, the chance to fill Binny's position. Gopal made his debut only last season and had played only seven first-class matches when the season began. He ended up playing all 11 games, took 28 wickets and struck two hundreds.
"The young players are willing to do anything the team requires," Gopal says. "Samarth opened, went at No. 3 and 4, I batted from No. 6 to 8. So as long as the team needs someone, we were all more than willing to perform. There was a lot of hard work put in by us. Even when we were put in a spot by Baroda, the seniors, support staff…everyone stepped up to support each other and put up a strong performance."
Baroda surprised the defending champions when they took a first-innings lead, set a target of 288 and then reduced Karnataka to 50 for 6 before CM Gautam and Gopal rescued them. While Gautam scored a patient 30 off 119 balls, Gopal stuck it out with an unbeaten 51 to steer his team to a draw with three wickets in hand.
"This season I got runs under my belt, I got to bat in different positions and was happy to contribute whenever it was required," says Gopal who accumulated 663 runs at an average of 55.25.
The environment and atmosphere in the dressing room is such that even when the younger brigade is not able to perform, or the law of average catches up on any of them, the seniors always set an example, be it with the bat or ball, and the numbers clearly show that.
"All the senior players set great example for youngsters coming in, like Vinay and Robin," Rahul says. "Both are the highest wicket-taker and highest run-getter this season and they've set the standard really high. So the youngsters sitting outside or looking up to them know what they have to do to play for the country or play higher level of cricket. They set amazing examples and standards for all of us…and all of them are young, the average age is 23-24.
"So even a youngster coming into the team doesn't feel like it's a different atmosphere because we're all the same age, same batch so they never felt the pressure because we all backed them very well and to get into this Karnataka team you really should be someone who's performed extremely well because if you've to break into our team you've to put in some amazing performances. I am sure someone who puts in performances like that is a very confident individual. So once he comes into the team he feels at home."
Karnataka made sure they made a statement against the big teams right from the beginning. They beat Tamil Nadu by 285 runs, thrashed Bengal by nine wickets, and even though they drew against Mumbai in a league match, in their second clash in Bangalore they sent Mumbai packing for 44. That performance was followed by an innings win against Tamil Nadu in the final.
"Youngsters put their hand up because they know the name comes out very well when they perform against big sides," Mithun says. "They have been putting in hard work and they wanted to perform and see the results. They are already like us, actually. Everyone plays together and wants to push skill-wise, they practice very hard, they look up to the seniors and want to step up. Every player is taking it like a challenge. Whoever gets a chance performs and comes up for the team.
"Vinay knows very well who is suitable for what situation and acts accordingly. He knows everyone's strengths. Robin also leads from the front and gives pep talks, talks to the younger players on the field when the team is feeling down."
After five consecutive draws - four in the league stage and one in the quarter-final - Karnataka got their momentum back with the confidence-boosting win in the semi-final which made them clear favourites for the final. By then the team had made it clear that they were at least a notch or two above the others, that too for the second season in a row.
"There are many juniors in the team and they all stepped up and performed," Vinay says. "I never saw any tension on their faces, they always seemed confident. And the results you can see - Karun and Rahul performed so well in the finals.
"We are all enjoying each other's success, something you will rarely see in other teams. We're like a family. The players always step up, like Mithun went up and scored 89 against Mumbai so now I'm confident of sending him up the order in the future. There is no fear in our team, that's the main point."
Going into the Irani Cup starting Tuesday, another advantage this family has is that they will be playing at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, the same ground where they beat Rest of India last season by an innings and 222 runs, a win that was sealed by a hat-trick from Gopal.
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo