Karnataka set to receive Rahul and Aravind boost
It may be early days in the Ranji Trophy, but Karnataka find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the tournament standings. With four points from two matches, they are placed fourth behind Assam, Delhi and Maharashtra. After conceding the first-innings lead in their opening match against Assam, Karnataka invigorated their campaign by stacking up heaps of runs against Bengal in their first home fixture.
As they head into the third round, the defending champions are well equipped to push for their first outright win. For starters, they will welcome the return of their two newest internationals - KL Rahul and S Aravind. While Rahul has recovered from a quadriceps injury, Aravind comes back to the domestic fold after his first taste of top-flight cricket.
"It's going to help the team because he is in very good form," Vinay Kumar, the captain, said at the pre-match press conference. "And for him also, a Test series is coming up and if he performs well he can carry this confidence to the Test game."
Aravind's role will be no less critical on a surface that is expected to be lively. In fact, it is understood that the pitch has been watered liberally after accounting for the hot afternoons. Vinay suggested he might play four seamers after having a final look at the surface.
"[In the] last match maybe the wicket became slower compared to normal. This wicket looks better. Whatever game we play we always go for an outright victory."
But, it is not as if Karnataka are entirely devoid of worries, as they sweat over Shishir Bhavane's fitness. Bhavane, who has been Karnataka's highest scorer thus far with scores of 65, 40 and 119 in his last three innings, has still not completely recovered from the wrist injury he sustained against Bengal. He did not bat in the nets on Wednesday, but was in visible discomfort while facing throwdowns. Should Bhavane not play, Karnataka are likely to bring back Mayank Agarwal.
CM Gautam is likely to take over the gloves, in line with Karnataka's ploy of alternating between him and Robin Uthappa, who kept wickets against Bengal. "They will do alternate games. If Robin is going to open or maybe [play at] No.3, CM will remain [at] No.6," Vinay said. The ploy of shuffling wicketkeepers was, according to Vinay, necessitated by Uthappa's decision to keep, as "that may help him come into the Indian side."
Meanwhile, Vidarbha find themselves a spot below Karnataka, with only a point separating them. Their captain S Badrinath refused to talk up their prospects, but said "overall we are a good side."
Like Vinay, he intends to field a seam-heavy side, and said he might play three quicks. "I don't know if it will really assist seamers or not, but definitely I don't think there will be much help for spinners," Badrinath said.
Badrinath pinned his hopes on Vidarbha's batting, which also comprises Ganesh Satish and Wasim Jaffer, a domestic heavyweight. "I think we have a very strong batting unit. That is the body of our side," Badrinath said. "Hopefully our batting unit will fire and that is what I am banking upon. We have quite experienced batters in the side, who have done well against good opposition."
Vidarbha will want to ensure there is no repeat of their second-innings meltdown against Delhi, where they folded for 98 and lost by 10 wickets.
"I think we played good cricket throughout the match, but I think one session is where we faltered with our batting. Overall, I am pretty happy with the way things are going even though some results are not going our way," Badrinath said.
Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo