'I handle pressure better now'
Karnataka's R Vinay Kumar became the first captain in the history of Indian domestic cricket to lead a team to victory in the Ranji Trophy, Irani Cup, and Vijay Hazare Trophy (the domestic one-day tournament) in the same year. Despite being in and out of the Indian team, Vinay has worked hard on his bowling and leadership, upgrading his own skills and also playing a role in the growth of other players in his team.
You are the only captain to have won three domestic titles in the same year. How proud are you?
It feels really great. We did not know how big an achievement this is. Our success mantra has been to take one game at a time. After winning the Vijay Hazare we thought, let us now aim for the next: Syed Mushtaq Ali [domestic T20].
At what point during the Ranji season did you grow confident that this was going to be a different year?
We lost to Mumbai in Mysore in the 2009-10 Ranji Trophy final by six runs and I could never forget that pain. The next year we lost in the semi-finals (to Baroda), and the following year we lost in the quarter-finals [to Haryana]. Last year we again failed to get past the quarter-finals, losing to Saurashtra.
We asked ourselves some tough questions: whether we lacked in our preparations or whether we were not taking the responsibility. At the beginning of this season we told ourselves we had the team but we were lacking in some small areas. So we decided all of us needed to take some extra responsibility. The belief and faith became stronger with every match, and we kept winning from whatever position we found ourselves in.
In one of our final league matches, Mumbai needed 282 for an outright victory. We were playing on our home ground. It was a low-scoring match. Before entering the final day, we had a chat. We were playing on the centre pitch, which can be dicey. The cracks open by the fourth day. If we wanted to win the Ranji Trophy we had to get them out within 180 - that was our target. The way we went about things and performed and got Mumbai all out, I realised that this season we could actually win the title.
Karnataka were the only team to win seven matches in this season's Ranji Trophy. What were the areas that you stressed on?
We stressed to the batsmen that they [needed to] take the team to safe positions. In the 2011 final in Mysore against Mumbai, Manish Pandey was playing with such freedom, and in the dressing room we were making jokes and thinking we would win the match easily. But as soon as he got out, we folded. I have never been tired of reminding him that only if he had batted for another 15 overs we could definitely have won the match. Such small factors play a decisive role.
This year Robin [Uthappa] took more responsibility for helping the batsmen and making them understand the importance of playing according to the situation and how to battle different conditions. He stressed on playing one ball at a time, as he felt that would help regain the focus. It is in the mind that you can win or lose a game.
In the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka were one bowler short in the second innings after HS Sharath suffered a shoulder injury in the field. Abhimanyu Mithun, your fast-bowling partner, recollects the moment when you walked to him and said that for Karnataka to make the semi-final, he and you had to deliver.
That match was as big as the Mumbai match. UP were also one bowler short after RP Singh got injured early in the first innings. I told Mithun we have better bowlers than the opposition, considering both of us have played for India. If we bowl even 90% to our strengths, to our potential, then very few batsmen can tackle us. This is the day we need to deliver.
He was bowling short and it was annoying him. It was important for me to point out to him to bowl to his fields. For example, take the wicket of Mohammad Kaif in the first innings. As soon as he came in to bat I got a short fine leg and square leg. I know Mithun, when he gets a rhythm, can bowl lethal incutters with extra pace. Kaif usually tries to jab at such balls. So I set a particular field, but Kaif left a ball that came in and was bowled.
In fact Venkatesh Prasad, the UP coach, says he was waiting for you two to get tired as you were bowling longer spells. He was impressed by your determination, consistency and accuracy.
That was a quarter-final. It was not a league match. If we had not performed in that match then again we would have been out of the tournament. I did not want that to happen. That day we were never going to be tired despite bowling long spells. If you have the hunger to want to get them all out, you will not be bothered by exhaustion.
What about your own bowling? What did you work on this season?
I am at my best as a bowler. I have lost about 3kg. When you look fit, it adds to your self-confidence. It has helped me run quicker in my bowling stride. My rhythm comes from my run-up, so losing weight definitely helped in many ways.
You said earlier that you have improved as a captain because you have become better at following your instincts. But you seem to have also got better at assessing conditions.
Possibly. In the semi-final, against Punjab, we were playing in Mohali in really cold conditions. I had a catch in my back, which hampered movement in my left shoulder. I was advised to take an MRI scan. But I did not want to take any chances. That was because during the Mumbai match we had conceded the lead by barely ten runs. At that point I was not on the field because I had felt a niggle in my calf and had to visit the hospital for a scan. I had sat out for more than three hours in the process. If I had stayed at the ground I could have stopped Mumbai from taking the lead.
In Mohali, I asked the physio to do whatever and get me back on the field. It did not matter whether I bowled or not. I just wanted to be there in the middle. We had elected to bowl but Punjab's openers were taking advantage of some wayward bowling by the likes of Ronit More. On a fast pitch More was bowling lengths one bowls on a flat pitch and leaking boundaries. I told him the ball needed to hit the handle. He immediately had one of the openers caught behind.
After a while I decided to bowl off a short run-up. The first ball was good, even though I did not finish my follow-through. I got a wicket in a couple of balls. I got the feel-good factor soon. I was bowling at 80% but that was fine because my sole aim was to hit specific spots on the pitch that would help cut the ball. The pitch was damp in the morning session, so if you pitched the ball in the right areas it would leave some tiny marks. Once the pitch was dry you just needed to pitch on those spots. I managed to get five wickets for one run. It was a dream spell.
Usually every captain has one or two go-to players in the team. In your case do you feel you are your team's go-to man?
In bowling, I agree. If there is a difficult situation I will take the ball immediately, because I know if I take a wicket or two that will help the team. Take the crucial match during the zonal stage of the Vijay Hazare, when we tied with Hyderabad. In the Powerplay I got three wickets in two overs and that was vital. In the Irani Cup, Dinesh Karthik and Harbhajan Singh were playing really well for Rest of India. Their partnership was building fast. I had not bowled much in that phase and decided to come back, and took Bhajji's wicket. Next over Robin took a superb catch to dismiss Karthik. The match was in our grasp soon.
Fitness is an important element of your game. Prasad points out a good example during the Challenger Trophy final: You ran out Virat Kohli midway into your follow-through. Do you remember that?
Virat had played [the ball] towards midwicket. I was into my follow-through leaning to my left, but midway I stopped, changed my body position, jumped across the pitch, intercepted the ball, and threw it in one action to break the stumps. I had run out Unmukt Chand against Delhi during the league stage in a similar fashion.
If I do not do a fitness training session every day, I miss something. I start feeling guilty. It has become a routine, and probably that is because of the culture I have observed in Karnataka cricket. When I made my debut for Karnataka I would see [Anil] Kumble, [Sunil] Joshi, Rahul [Dravid], Venky [Prasad], [Javagal] Srinath train regularly. If I had to reach their level, I had to train.
Are you disappointed not being part of the Indian team?
I would say yes. You can see, I am always striving to perform and take a wicket. But one bad match in Bangalore (against Australia)...
What happened that evening?
When a batsman can score 200 runs, at least one bowler will go for 100. Most of the bowlers went for 80-85 runs. In hindsight I could have bowled more yorkers. Instead I stuck to pitching more back of a length, even if I was getting hit for a six. Usually I would bowl a slower delivery or a yorker the next ball. Ironically I had been doing that the whole series [bowling short-of-a-length deliveries], making breakthroughs in Powerplay overs. I think I was the highest wicket-taker among the fast bowlers.
Has MS Dhoni spoken to you about your bowling?
Like I feel I am my team's go-to bowler, I feel - and I might be wrong - he sees me as one of his go-to bowlers. He has thrown me the ball during the Powerplay and death overs. Only if a captain has confidence will he give a bowler such responsibility. Once, after the 2011 ODI series in England, he told me I bowl well and have variations but I can get predictable. He had asked me to work on that area. I always make sure I bowl against him during the team training because he is a dangerous batsman. If you can restrict him, that gives you extra confidence. So yes, I remain confident about my chances of making a comeback.
I have matured enough to handle the pressure better now. This domestic season I have learned a lot about myself and how to bounce back from difficult situations. I want to really come back to the Indian team, so I'm waiting.
You have played one Test. How ready are you now to take the opportunity whenever it comes?
My performances with the red ball in both the Ranji and Irani tournaments were very good. In Perth I played as a fourth bowler on my Test debut. Eric Simons, India's bowling coach then, told me that my duty was to give less than three runs an over. Straight away I was on the back foot: I just needed to try and bowl dot balls.
Next time I get a chance, I will enter the ground with a different mindset. I will bowl more like a strike bowler. In the ODI series I was a totally different bowler. Even Dhoni told me he sensed I had not bowled 100% in the Perth Test match.
You will agree that pace is not your biggest weapon. Do you have to rely on consistency, accuracy and control instead?
I cannot bowl 140kph. I can't do that. I have to perform within my limits. I can bowl between 130-135kph, but the margin of error is very less. I have to be consistent and move the ball both ways. I have now also developed the inswinger, so I can definitely trouble the batsmen. Hopefully I will be part of the Indian squad for the World Cup, since it is happening in Australia and New Zealand, where the pitches and conditions suit my style of bowling. These three to four years are my peak ones and important for me. That makes me positive.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo