'It was like winning the World Cup' - KL Rahul
KL Rahul, one of the pillars of Karnataka's Ranji Trophy success, has said that winning the domestic title was equivalent to "winning the World Cup". According to Rahul, who scored a century in the final against Maharashtra in the first innings and finished as the second highest run-scorer in the tournament, the title had somewhat erased the "hurt" he and his team-mates had endured from 2010 when Robin Uthappa's Karnataka lost to Mumbai in the Ranji final by six runs.
"For first-class cricketers like us it is like winning the World Cup. How India won the 2011 World Cup, it is as big as that for us," Rahul told ESPNcricinfo on Monday. "Especially for young guys like us who are just starting our careers and playing the Ranji Trophy for the second or third season. Winning a tournament is always a dream for every cricketer. Having seen the senior players in the team struggle for seven to eight years to see the Ranji Trophy, and we get it in the third year, we feel very lucky, we feel very blessed."
Rahul had actually entered the final having not completely recovered from the viral fever he picked up in Bangalore. Although he felt "weak" he remained stoic, having received "strong doses" of medication from the physio. The infection was not going to distract Rahul who, along Karun Nair (both had three centuries) finished as the most consistent batsmen for Karnataka.
The loss to Mumbai in a pulsating final in Mysore in 2010, witnessed by a rapturous full house, had caused a lot of "hurt" to everyone, including Rahul, who at the time was playing for the state Under-19 team.
Standing in front of Rahul Dravid's mural at the Chinnaswamy stadium, Rahul said that the team had found a lot of support throughout their campaign from many former players, including positive words from Dravid. "He [Dravid] left us all a message and told us he was really proud of all of us. He asked us to party really hard and enjoy this moment because we have worked really, really hard. He has seen that, too. He has been a great help for everyone in the team. He is always there during the nets and helping everybody out," Rahul said.
Bonding is something successful teams thrive on and this was one of the strongest virtues of this Karnataka team led by Vinay Kumar. "Robin [Uthappa] spoke about how he felt when India won the 2007 World T20. Vinay spoke on winning the 2013 Champions Trophy. So all of us started believing, all of us started wanting to feel that way too," Rahul said.
Uthappa recollected the dicey moments in the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh when Karnataka's top order failed in both innings. "It was the post knockout stages we were worried about. In the last few years we lost in the quarters a couple of times, semis a few times. So we felt that if we get to the quarters we will do really, really well. And when we found ourselves at 14 for 3 (sic. 15) everyone had their tails up because you feel that you are now in the same situation. We worked really hard to get here and then it is going to go down. But some of us stood up and made useful contributions," Uthappa, who had scored a century to start Karnataka's recovery in the quarter-finals, said.
Four years after having ended as the runner-up, Uthappa's role changed. From captain he became the team's cheerleader. "Everyday in the huddle I would speak to the boys about making them believe this trophy is ours. We were going to win it, no matter what. Mentally and in your mind and heart experience winning it and believe that it has already happened," Uthappa said.
Uthappa believes the team saw a "different side" of him and that came as a refreshing change to all the players. He remembers the occasion when he got the whole team to his house after Karnataka had defeated a gritty Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-finals. "We gelled so much as a team. Even during that get-together, we were talking about what we are going to do after we win the trophy. (May be) put the Ranji Trophy in the middle, sit around and have a beer," Uthappa said.
Vinay made it clear that the team did celebrate on Sunday evening in Hyderabad, but within the limits. "We had a limit. We didn't touch the limit," he said during the media conference held after the Karnataka State Cricket Association felicitated the team in Bangalore. Once Karnataka entered the knockouts, Vinay had emphasised that every member of his squad had played an integral role in winning the title. Little wonder then that the entire squad was present in Hyderabad to celebrate the moment, including Stuart Binny, who joined the squad immediately after returning from New Zealand.
For Binny, January was a "big month" when he made his ODI debut in the fourth match in Hamilton. Although his participation was restricted to just bowling one over, Binny was happy to re-join the Karnataka squad in Hyderabad immediately on his return. "I am in the tenth season of my Ranji Trophy cricket and to pull off a victory even though I wasn't part of it is a very satisfying moment," Binny said.
Binny had another reason to feel ecstatic. Watching him in the stands was his father Roger, the former India fast bowler, and current national selector. Incidentally, Roger Binny had won the Ranji Trophy in 1982-83 season, under the captaincy of Brijesh Patel. On Sunday the Binnys were proud to join a select band of father-son duos to have experienced Ranji title wins. "He [Roger] was watching the game yesterday. Someone mentioned there are only two father-son duos to have won the Ranji Trophy at the moment. That is quite pleasing," the younger Binny said with a chuckle.
The 2009-10 season was a bittersweet one for Abhimanyu Mithun. He was tied on 46 wickets with Vinay. It was the Mumbai's second innings and Karnataka needed just one wicket. "Vinay was the senior and I wanted both of us to finish with the same number of wickets. But Robin said that it was important we do not give away runs and he asked me to bowl and I got the wicket to finish as the highest wicket-taker that season" Mithun recollected.
Four years later, Mithun turned out once again to be the go-to man for Karnataka and Vinay. Mithun finished as the third best bowler in the tournament with 41 wickets. The ability to bowl the opposition out proved decisive as Karnataka remained undefeated throughout and finished the campaign with seven outright wins, the most by any team this season.
Once the Ranji Trophy was theirs, Mithun attempted to lift the wide-bodied trophy on his own. "It was really, really heavy," Mithun said with a broad smile. "I removed my shirt and took a picture. I wanted to see how much weight I had lost during the season. I had lost four kilos."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo