Clash of equals in big final
It's been just over a year since Maharashtra last met Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy. The result of that match sent Karnataka into the quarter-finals and Maharashtra down to Group C.
Now, they meet again, as equals, on neutral territory. They meet in the final of the Ranji Trophy. Before looking ahead, though, it might be worthwhile to look back at that previous meeting.
Relegation had become a reality for Maharashtra on the third morning of that match; responding to Karnataka's 572, they had crashed from 68 for 1 to 99 all out. Following on, they batted much better, and were bowled out late on the final day for 561. It left Karnataka 89 to get in 13 overs to reach the quarter-finals. They romped home in 11.4 overs.
For Maharashtra, it was a crushing defeat, at the end of a chastening season. It was New Year's Day. It was time for change.
Change has certainly taken place. Maharashtra wouldn't be in the final otherwise. But you won't see it on their team sheet. Seven players who were part of that defeat will almost certainly play on Wednesday. Karnataka's first eleven, in fact, has gone through more of a shake-up over the last year than Maharashtra's.
"I think the players are the same," said Surendra Bhave, Maharashtra's coach, on the eve of the final. "It was the self-belief that was going to be important. The players learn much better when the team is winning. Sometimes you say that losing and defeats teach you a lot of lessons. That might be true but I feel wins make a big difference. As a unit when you become confident, it shows in your performances."
Rohit Motwani, their captain, said Bhave's appointment as coach, late last season, helped the team gel. "This team was performing well individually until last year," Motwani said. "There was guidance that was needed for the team to come together. The only thing was a coach who could understand the scenario of our team and once that happened, the team picked up."
Assessing the opposing line-ups, therefore, isn't an easy task. At one level, Karnataka are favourites. They have the bigger names, by far. Three of their players have played for the national side, and have 99 India caps between them. None of the Maharashtra players have any international experience. None of them have even played a Ranji Trophy final. Karnataka were in a final four years ago. They lost that final narrowly, and some of their players are still smarting from that defeat. Eight of them are still in their squad.
But all this was true even before these two sides last met. This Maharashtra team, while more or less comprising the same players, is very different. Five of their batsmen have 500-plus runs and 50-plus averages this season. Three of their bowlers have taken 30 wickets or more. They beat Mumbai, in Mumbai, after conceding a 122-run first-innings lead. They brushed Bengal aside in three days.
Against that, Karnataka have the awe-inspiring fact of having won six matches outright, in a row. They probably would have won a seventh if the weather had been less of a factor in their semifinal against Punjab. They have won from all kinds of positions. They were 86 for 7, chasing 97, against Haryana. They were 32 for 2 after conceding an 18-run first-innings lead to Mumbai. They were 73 for 4 replying to Delhi's 202. They were 15 for 3, with three batsmen dismissed for ducks, against Uttar Pradesh. They weren't necessarily life-threatening situations, but they were difficult places to be in. Karnataka recovered each time, and won each of those matches outright.
Each time, someone put his hand up, and it wasn't necessarily the same face all the time. It's an instructive fact that eight different batsmen have scored centuries for Karnataka this season.
"It is a great achievement of the team, coming back in games where we conceded the lead," said Vinay Kumar, Karnataka's captain. "We were in tough situations. We hadn't thought that we would win so many games outright. Each of the players have played to their strength right from the start and if we do the small things right, the big things will take care of themselves. We just think of the session and what we need to do in it."
Bhave said much the same thing, when asked how he planned to help the Maharashtra players deal with the pressure of being in a final.
"The usual trick used there is that you keep saying that it's just another game but everyone knows it's not," Bhave said. "So [we are] giving it due importance but then again we have concentrated throughout the season about playing the session correctly. Winning the session is important. So once again it is a session-to-session and a day-to-day process for the side. Winning all those games will definitely have a bearing on how we play this particular match."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo