Relentless Karnataka attack sets bar high
On the second morning of the Irani Cup, Karnataka's first- and second-change bowlers sent down eight overs in tandem. Sreenath Aravind bowled from one end, HS Sharath from the other. No wickets fell in those eight overs, and the batsmen hit five fours. In that period, Rest of India went from 41 for 2 to 72 for 2.
The bare facts might suggest Aravind and Sharath released the pressure built by Karnataka's new-ball bowlers, and gave Paras Dogra and Naman Ojha breathing space to rebuild after RoI's rocky start. The bare facts, as can often be the case, are misleading.
Of the 31 runs Aravind and Sharath conceded in those eight overs, only three came through the leg side, all singles, one of which was an attempted cover drive that Ojha inside-edged towards fine leg. Four of the five boundaries came via drives through the off side when the bowlers erred on the full side - a more forgivable offence than bowling short or on the pads, considering Karnataka had cover, mid-off and a short extra cover for protection.
There were plenty of open spaces on the leg side, but this didn't make the bowlers veer too far away from off stump. Through that eight-over period, the batsmen left only six balls.
It wasn't a hugely significant period of play in the context of the match result. The new-ball bowlers picked up two wickets before Aravind and Sharath came on, and two wickets fell immediately after they went out of the attack. They weren't perfect spells, as the half-volleys would indicate, but it was pretty good bowling, and it took some pretty good batting from Dogra and Ojha to survive it. It showed Rest of India's batsmen there would be no real let-up in the pressure from any of Karnataka's four seamers.
A lot of pitches this season have come in for criticism for being too green, to the point of rewarding medium-pacers for simply putting the ball in a reasonably good area. This Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch wasn't like that. It had true bounce and a bit of seam movement over the first couple of days, and driving or punching away from the body was a risky idea, but anything loose could be punished without fear.
It was important for a bowling team to maintain pressure on the batsmen, and Vinay Kumar, the Karnataka captain, said it was this thought that prompted the decision to play four seamers.
"Normally, we have three good seamers and once we finish our spell, we need a part-timer to fill up," he said. "Even Shreyas [Gopal, the legspinner] is a main bowler, but someone has to bowl that five to six overs, and the chances are there for the batsmen to get set.
"That's why we went with an extra bowler. We knew with the kind of bowlers we have, the plan was to come in short spells and bowl in the right areas."
On the first day, Rest of India had bowled Karnataka out for 244, and that might suggest they bowled well too. They did, but only in spurts. Given the start Karnataka got - they were 220 for 4 at one stage - they must have felt disappointed they didn't put a bigger total on the board. Vinay said he had expected around 350.
It took a good spell from Varun Aaron - who bowled a good length in the channel outside off and defeated batsmen with bounce when they looked to drive or punch him with an angled bat - to restrict Karnataka. Aaron was RoI's first-change bowler, and he came on to replace Shardul Thakur, who had sprayed the new ball around, giving up three leg-side fours in his first four overs.
In the second innings, the roles were reversed, somewhat. Aaron took the new ball, and bowled a long first spell, half of it at the end of the second day and half at the start of the third. He picked up the wicket of Mayank Agarwal, but he conceded eight fours in ten overs. Thakur, off his rhythm in the first innings, was the pick of RoI's second-innings bowlers, finishing with a five-for and impressing with movement and bounce.
Manoj Tiwary, the Rest of India captain, picked up on this inconsistency.
"I thought we were good in patches, but not on a regular basis," he said. "We bowled too many overs outside the off stump and few of the bowlers were not getting into the rhythm.
"We were a little inconsistent as far as our length and line was concerned. They capitalised on the loose balls which were provided by us."
Given the mix-and-match nature of the Rest of India side, it was natural that the seamers didn't necessarily have defined roles. Karnataka, on the other hand, came into the match as a wildly successful team whose core has remained more or less unchanged over the last two seasons.
Each of the four seamers knew their roles perfectly. Vinay, the leader of the attack, was the aggressive swing bowler, pitching it up, swerving it away, occasionally jagging one back in - such as the ball that dismissed Tiwary in the first innings - and given a little more license to try things than the other three.
Abhimanyu Mithun, usually the hit-the-deck enforcer, bowled fuller and straighter than he typically does, particularly in the second innings when there was up-and-down bounce on offer. RoI were chasing 403 and he destroyed their hopes with three wickets in his first two overs. Two were caught behind, poking at the ball as it took off from a length and straightened, and the other was bowled looking to work across the line of one that kept a bit low.
Aravind, the left-arm seamer, and Sharath, blessed with Mithun's height but not his pace, merely looked to keep things simple. With the cracks on the pitch widening during the second innings, Aravind bowled mostly from around the wicket, an angle that allowed him to attack the stumps.
The only release from the pressure maintained by the seamers came from Shreyas' legspin, but while he conceded close to four runs an over in the first innings and more than a run a ball in the second, he kept getting batsmen out. It's been the story of his career so far. He bowls shorter spells than a spinner might usually expect, filling in whenever the seamers have needed a break, but has a strike rate - 37.50 - that would make a 19th century bowler proud. He turns the ball, bowls a good googly, and while he does bowl the odd bad ball, there's a certain amount of risk involved in targeting his bowling.
"[Shreyas] has improved, and he has become our breakthrough bowler, but the consistency has to improve," Vinay Kumar said. "He will do well for us in the coming years."
It was an unusually harsh assessment, in an era when most other captains might have chosen to play up a young bowler's strengths. But it summed up the attitude Karnataka have shown with the ball over the last two seasons. They have set the bar pretty high.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo