Bengal brace for smarting champions
The moods of the two sides that will clash at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium starting Thursday were reflected in their respective captains' demeanor when they arrived for the pre-match press conferences. Bengal's Manoj Tiwary seemed tentative when he walked in, wishing the reporters "good afternoon", getting no response, and speaking softly even in the absence of a microphone. Karnataka's Vinay Kumar strutted in confidently, in flip-flops, like the leader of a side that has been winning domestic tournaments one after another. Well, they have been.
After a winless 2014-15 season, Bengal start this year's campaign against the defending champions. With a home record of three wins and two draws last season, Karnataka will be hungry to roar back after a disappointing opening match away from home against recently-promoted Assam. Even though Karnataka conceded the first-innings lead in the drawn match, Vinay said he wasn't worried, and was looking forward rather than backwards.
"Sometimes it happens, we need to come back strongly," he said. "Many teams may give up after scoring 180 and they concede 250-300, but we fought really well. It happens but I won't think much about that game. We need to forget about it and move forward. Last year also it happened, we conceded first-innings lead twice."
Bengal have their own battles to fight - they were nearly relegated last season, wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha was injured until recently, there were pre-season controversies during a preparatory tour of Sri Lanka, and some captaincy friction before Tiwary took the mantle. Tiwary will be challenged to get the best out of his individual players as well as make the team click as a unit. Only one Bengal bowler - Ashok Dinda - took more than 15 wickets last season, and no regular bowler averaged under 30. The batsmen will have better numbers to fall back on - three of them accumulated over 400 runs each and four averaged over 40 last time - but Tiwary said bringing out a collective batting performance would be his biggest task.
"For us, it's always the batting unit that is a bigger concern," Tiwary said. "Our bowling department has done really well over the last couple of years, we have world-class bowlers. It's just that as a batting unit we have not clicked together which normally leads to our downfall. Having said that, this season has been very different. VVS Laxman, as batting consultant, has helped to work on the basics of our batsmen. He's been spending a lot of time with them, lots of videos he has done with the players. I'm very sure the difference will be seen here."
Bengal will be relieved they have a fully fit squad now, including Saha, and apart from Laxman's services, Tiwary said the presence of other former players also gave the side a confidence-booster ahead of the season.
"We have worked on our work ethic, we have put in more time than usual," he said. "With the arrival of Sairaj [Bahutule as head coach], it's helping a lot. In the fielding department we've got Joydeep Mukherjee and in the bowling department we have got Ranadeb Bose so all that experience is coming handy for all of us.
"[Bahutule] has also brought in the culture of Mumbai as they have won many trophies so he knows what are the things to be done to cross that hurdle. We, as a team, did great in patches. Last year was not very good for us but before that we reached semi-finals. We were not able to work on our game to cross the line. He knows the areas we need to work on, reach the finals and be the champions."
Karnataka, unlike their opponents, are still carrying an injury. KL Rahul is recovering from his quadriceps injury and is likely to take another week before playing his next match. But Vinay said their batting had enough quality to cope, and in conjunction with a potent bowling attack, the side had enough strengths to focus on without dwelling on Bengal's weaknesses.
"We have a very good bowling side, one of the best in India," Vinay said. "In batting also we have Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, and some of them have this year played for India. Robin [Uthappa] and KL are there, Samarth got a hundred in the last game."
Apart form those familiar names, Vinay Kumar also spoke highly of their new prospect, the left-arm spinner J Suchith - already known to IPL fans - who made his first-class debut against Bangladesh A last month with figures of 6 for 60 in the second innings.
"He bowled really well," Vinay Kumar said. "He's a good prospect as he can bat, bowl and he's a very good fielder. He's an overall package actually and we can definitely expect performances from him that can help us win the games."
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo