Ranji Trophy 2015-16 September 29, 2015

Bench strength crucial as Karnataka gun for three-peat

Champions in 2013-14 and 2014-15, can Karnataka do the three-peat? © PTI

Where they finished last season

Came in as defending champions. Went out as back-to-back champions. Now searching for the hat-trick.

Big picture

A team with plenty of options. A captain who shepherds one of the better bowling attacks in the country. Title winners in all three formats since the 2013-14 season. And a thriving hub for India players. Karnataka have been the headliners of the domestic circuit for a while now, and there is a pretty good chance that will continue.

Dominance like that builds a certain culture. There is very little turnover in players and no shortage of experience. Five of the 15 picked for Karnataka's first Ranji Trophy match have been part of India squads. Besides the attraction of India players, Karnataka's consistency has put bums on seats and their fans, while not quite the Barmy Army, often become a twelfth man that cannot be ignored. Players in such an environment will want more of it. As Vinay Kumar said, "We want to complete the hat-trick. It won't be easy. But we know how to handle that pressure. Definitely want to win the Ranji Trophy and whatever other tournament Karnataka plays"

So a good start this season might be helpful. First on their docket is an away game against the newly-promoted Assam and their next two opponents - Bengal and Vidarbha - have a history of making the knockout stages of the Ranji Trophy. Tough company. And Karnataka will go into those bouts a few pounds lighter.

Two of their regulars - Stuart Binny and S Aravind - are unavailable to play Assam because they have been picked to play for India against South Africa. Aravind could return to Karnataka duty soon seeing as he has only been picked for the three T20Is. Another India cap, KL Rahul, is recuperating from a quadriceps injury, but is likely to be fit for the second round. He might not stay for long if he retains his spot in the Test side. With a long home season for the national team, Karnataka's bench strength will be put to the test.

Squad

Vinay Kumar (capt), CM Gautam (wk), Mayank Agarwal, Shishir Bhavane, Shreyas Gopal, Abhimanyu Mithun, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, Udit Patel, Prasidh Krishna, Abhishek Reddy, R Samarth, HS Sharath, J Suchith, Robin Uthappa

Players to watch

Shreyas Gopal is in something of a Steven Smith situation. Once labelled their lead spinner, he's now one of their established batsmen. He possesses the ingredients to become a successful bowler and he has said he works hard on that aspect of his game, but batting is where he naturally succeeds. He plays in the middle order, can attack just as well as defend and showed his temperament last season when he helped remedy Karnataka top-order collapses.

Champion teams cannot have men sitting back and thinking the next man in will bail them out. The top-order needs to make it count and a lot of that responsibility falls on senior man Robin Uthappa. Karnataka cannot afford a repeat of scores like 97 for 5, 69 for 5, 83 for 5 and 50 for 6 and if KL Rahul remains with the Indian Test squad, Uthappa, who harbours Test ambitions of his own, will do well to put in some big performances.

Coaches

Mansur Ali Khan (head coach), J Arunkumar (batting coach), Shravan (Physio) Prashant Pujar (Trainer)

Preparation

The Karnataka players have been kept busy in the KPL, a local T20 tournament, and geared up for multi-day cricket by beating the touring Bangladesh A comprehensively last week.

Team news

"This is a special bunch of boys," is Vinay Kumar's assessment. The core has remained intact with Vinay, Abhimanyu Mithun and HS Sharath forming the pace attack, Robin Uthappa, CM Gautam, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey leading the batting and Shreyas Gopal lending balance as the legspinning allrounder. There are a couple of new faces as well - seamer Prasidh Krishna, who took a five-for on first-class debut against Bangladesh A last week, and left-arm spinner J Suchith, who did the same and additionally has some IPL experience with the champions Mumbai Indians.

In their own words

"The average age [of the squad] must only be only 25-26. Pretty young team, but at the same time [they are] mature. Very rarely will you see such a combination. Feels great to lead this side"
Karnataka captain Vinay Kumar

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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