Depth, healthy competition clinched it for Karnataka
Karnataka used 19 players during their Ranji Trophy campaign. Five of them - Mayank Agarwal, Abrar Kazi, Karun Nair, Ravikumar Samarth and Shreyas Gopal - made their first-class debuts this season. Kunal Kapoor, HS Sharath and Ronit More, meanwhile, only began their careers last season. KL Rahul had made his debut back in November 2010, but had only played three first-class games before the 2012-13 season.
Most of these players made important contributions to Karnataka's title win. Rahul and Nair averaged over 60 with the bat, Sharath, Gopal and More less than 20 with the ball. Nair made three centuries in a row. Agarwal made 90 on debut. Samarth, on his debut, scored a third-innings 75, when Karnataka were effectively two down for 14, to set up a win against Mumbai.
"They are all talented," says J Arunkumar, Karnataka's batting coach, when asked how so many young players have bedded in so well this season. "They are made very welcome in the team. The whole team is such that they are together and have played Under-25, Shafi Darashah, Moin-ud-Dowla (tournaments). The boys have been together for a long time. The seniors have been brilliant, they like all the juniors. They welcome them, have dinners with them, share a lot with them, they are room-mates. [With] all this little bonding, the spirit of the team became much better."
Did this bonding occur naturally, or did the team management have to act as a catalyst?
"A bit natural, and at times we had to make situations where the boys got together where you had to talk to juniors and tell him that this guy really likes you," says Arunkumar. "Sometimes when juniors come into the side they are a little apprehensive. No one knows about this but sometimes we used to go up to players and tell them that Vinay [Kumar] talks highly about you. Certain things which are true but something that Vinay might not have probably told him directly. As a mediator it's important for me to tell the player that Vinay really trusts you. These things help the confidence and they make a lot of difference."
Of the nine new or new-ish faces in the side, seven played five or more matches this season. And yet, when the final came around, Karnataka's eleven contained as many as eight players who had featured in the 2009-10 final, which they had lost narrowly to Mumbai.
Amit Verma, who hadn't played a game all season, had returned for the semi-finals. Ganesh Satish and Sreenath Aravind, who had been dropped for their side's last four and six matches respectively, were back in the XI for the final. Was this deliberate? Was it an attempt to pack the side with experienced players?
"Not really," says Arunkumar. "Horses-for-courses thing. Because Ganesh Satish is a very good player of spin, and on these kind of tracks, where there's a little pressure, Ganesh has always made good comebacks. You give him a go, he plays well. He was rested for a couple of games, his mind was fresh. So we thought this is the game."
Verma made a century in the semi-final against Punjab. Satish scored a first-innings century in the final, and scored 32 off 37 balls against Akshay Darekar, Maharashtra's lead spinner. Sharath took three wickets in the first innings of the final.
"When the mind is fresh you don't think of previous failures," says Arunkumar. "You're done thinking about it. You're eager, because you're working hard, you just want to have a go because everyone's getting runs. Let me get a chance, yaar. That hunger's much more inside."
Throughout the season, Karnataka showed that continuity might be an overrated concept. They made an average of 2.2 changes every match. Normally, this kind of rotation might suggest that a team is getting to know its best combination, but that wasn't the case with this Karnataka side. After their match against Odisha, their first win of the season, they made 2.6 changes per match, and won six out of the next seven games outright.
A lot of the player rotation was forced. Vinay and Stuart Binny were called up to the India ODI side at various stages. Robin Uthappa, Rahul, Samarth and Sharath picked up injuries at different stages of the season. But Karnataka's success, despite all this, suggests considerable strength in depth.
"These new guys we have brought in, they just didn't come in," Arunkumar says. "They've been working, they've been getting runs for 3-4 years now. Somebody like a Karun Nair, Kunal Kapoor, these guys have done tremendously well over the years, and we thought we had to give them the nod, because once they're 25, again you'll start saying, 'no, they're too old'.
"That's why everybody was on their toes, because whenever they got chances they did well. This kind of healthy competition is really good, in any team. The bench strength has to be really strong."
Over the course of the season, some of the younger players made match-turning contributions in crunch situations. In the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh, for instance, Nair came in at 15 for 3 and scored 100.
"We knew that Karun's head is very strong," Arunkumar says. "KL and Karun, the advantage they have apart from their game is their mind. And Mayank is somebody who's a very confidence kind of a player. We have a mix of all kinds of guys."
And all of them, Arunkumar adds, play the short ball well. "They can evade or hook," he says. "So once you have that, the front-foot game becomes very easy. Once you have a hook and a pull, that is out of your mind, and your front-foot game becomes easy. Once the front-foot game is easy, you are not worried about the bowlers getting you out. You're just thinking about getting runs."
He says there are two reasons for this - Karnataka's fast-bowling culture and the mentorship system.
"Rahul Dravid, although he's not with us, is a good batting mentor, so all the boys have a word with him," Arunkumar says. "Rahul calls the boys personally and finds out how he got out. He takes a lot of interest in our batting. So these little things make a lot of difference. When a Test star is asking you certain things and giving you advice, these guys are serious. Why would Rahul Dravid call up if he's not? These guys know that they must have something in them, that's why Rahul's calling them. That alone is enough to make them feel confident. Otherwise why would he?"
It's the same for the bowlers. "Anil [Kumble], [Javagal] Srinath, Sunil Joshi and Dodda Ganesh have spoken a lot about bowling. They've given a lot of inputs to the bowlers during the net sessions. They have seen the bowling of each guy and said, 'yeah, in this situation, you could try this, or you could try that'."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor in ESPNcricinfo