Karnataka bank on new-look top order
For nearly two seasons from 2011 to 2013, openers Robin Uthappa and KB Pawan followed by Ganesh Satish at No. 3, were the crux of Karnataka's top order, leading a batting line-up that had a few changes. A change of guard, however, began sometime midway through the season last year, when KL Rahul and Kunal Kapoor were given a chance at the top and middle order respectively. This year, however, things are already looking different.
An injury to Uthappa and Pawan's move to Tripura at the start of the domestic season meant that Karnataka began this Ranji Trophy campaign with a big gap at the top of the order and Karnataka turned to its young batsmen - Mayank Agarwal, Rahul and Kapoor - to fill that gap.
Prior to the tournament opener against Jharkhand in Mysore, Agarwal was better known for his IPL exploits, while Rahul - who made his first-class debut in 2010 - and Kapoor had played just 13 Ranji Trophy games between them. Rahul and Kapoor, however, were in good form in the Ranji Trophy last year. Rahul scored 400 runs in five matches at an average of 50, while Kapoor, batting at No. 3, became the first Karnataka batsman to hit a hundred in each innings, a record that helped the side salvage a draw from a losing position against Haryana.
"We are missing Robin in the opening spot and we wanted someone who could be as close to Robin in the aggression part, so we picked Mayank Agarwal," J Arunkumar, the Karnataka batting coach, said. "He is used to getting the big hundreds and double-hundreds in the past, so, we thought he was peaking at the right time."
Against Gujarat, the young top order will square up to face another young bunch of fast bowlers, and the hosts will aim to be just as aggressive with the bat. Karnataka's depth in batting has been boosted by the presence of Satish in the middle order and, according to Arunkumar, the batsman's ability to play well with the tail-end batsmen is important to the side.
Karnataka wicketkeeper CM Gautam said that the aggressive batting against Jharkhand, which saw four batsmen, including Vinay Kumar reach fifty, was the result of concerted pre-season efforts by Arunkumar to deal with the problem of batsmen getting bogged down early.
"Last year, for example, I thought we were too slow in getting runs at the start," Gautam said. "This year, one of our goals is to aim to score at three runs an over."
Gautam suggested that Karnataka are likely to field the same playing XI, on a pitch at the Chinnaswamy Stadium which is expected to be a sporting track that will aid pace bowling early on.
The unchanged combination means that Vinay, Abhimanyu Mithun and S Aravind will lead Karnataka's pace attack. Vinay and Mithun bowled well against Jharkhand, but it is Aravind's comeback that will have pleased Karnataka supporters the most. Aravind took a four-for on his return to the state side after two years spent recuperating from a knee injury.
Gujarat will also look to utilise the pace-friendly conditions and are likely to opt for a third seamer. Parthiv Patel, the Gujarat captain, said the side may drop a spinner for that purpose, with the right-arm seamer Mehul Patel being among the contenders. "He [Mehul] bowled well in the game against Vidarbha, so he might get a look-in," Parthiv said.
This may be one of the toughest challenges for Gujarat's batsmen in this tournament, yet. Smit Patel, who played with KL Rahul in the recent ACC Emerging Teams Cup, and Samit Gohel will need to get the team off to a good start against Vinay, Mithun, Aravind and Binny and it may be interesting to see if Parthiv decides to push himself up the order in case of an early wicket. Venugopal Rao's return to form, with a century in the last game against Delhi, is also a good sign for Gujarat.
What Gujarat have going for them is momentum. They beat Vidarbha by an innings and one run to grab seven points in the first game and their match against Delhi was closer than the final scoreline suggested as the young Gujarat bowling attack managed to sneak a 25-run first-innings lead.
The conundrum for Gujarat would center around which spinner to drop in case they play a third seamer. Rakesh Dhurv, the left-arm spinner, is the most experienced bowler in the line-up and Gujarat have a choice of playing two left-arm spinners by retaining young Akshar Patel - who picked up 6 for 55 in Delhi's first innings - or keeping offspinner Jesal Karia for more variety.
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo