Karnataka's promising season meets swift end
The Ranji Trophy is a marathon, and it has become more hectic with the introduction of neutral venues. Karnataka seemed to have trouble pacing themselves: they sprinted to four outright wins in a row at the start of the season, before tripping up against Saurashtra towards the close of the league stage, and eventually suffered a cataclysmic fall against arch-rivals Tamil Nadu in the quarter-final.
The 452 balls they faced in Visakhapatnam was their lowest in any match in the last ten seasons when they were bowled out twice.
Injury issues at different stages of their campaign did not help. Captain Vinay Kumar missed two games because of a calf injury and then worked his way through a "slight niggle" against Tamil Nadu. Abhimanyu Mithun and Manish Pandey also had to deal with injuries. Mithun, in particular, looked jaded on return and leaked 50 runs in 12 overs for two wickets in the quarter-final.
The injuries, though, paved the way for the return of offspinner K Gowtham after three seasons. He took 27 wickets in eight matches, including a career-best 7 for 108, which delivered a bonus-point win for Karnataka against Assam.
Despite the injury, Vinay had a memorable season on a personal front. He went past 400 first-class wickets and also became the highest wicket-taker among seamers in Ranji Trophy history. Left-arm seamer, S Aravind, meanwhile, played Robin to Vinay's Batman.
But Karnataka's own Robin - Uthappa - had a forgettable season. He began positively with two half-centuries in the Duleep Trophy, but his form tailed off in the Ranji Trophy, and he was ultimately left out of the quarter-final. In hindsight, Uthappa's experience might have come in handy in quarter-final, although rookie Kaunain Abbas had a decent debut stint prior to that match with four fifties.
The depth in the batting line-up came to the fore against Vidarbha in Vadodara. Seamer Lalit Yadav left Karnataka tottering at 120 for 7, but Vinay, Gowtham, and Abrar Kazi hauled their team to 267, and Karnataka won inside three days.
Few expected Karnataka to collapse twice against Tamil Nadu, especially after the return of India internationals KL Rahul, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair. The Visakhapatnam surface was green, with the ball often rearing from a good length or a back of a length, but it was not unplayable.
In the second innings, Rahul played close to the body, covered for the movement, and then briefly threw the Tamil Nadu attack off track with an assortment of upper-cuts. His opening partner, R Samarth, the only Karnataka batsman to pass 700 runs this season, went for a non-existent third run and was caught short. Stuart Binny's run-out then created another opening, and Tamil Nadu simply barged through.
Binny had also failed to score in the first innings, playing across the line to an innocuous straight ball and getting pinned in front. Abbas and Samarth were tentative in the channel outside off, and managed only six runs in 7.1 overs.
"We were probably overcautious about the wicket," J Arunkumar, the Karnataka coach had said after the first day's play. "When you are overcautious about something, your hand and feet don't move well.
"We played ten players who could bat. That's the best we could. It was just a bad day. What are the chances of none of the ten batsmen clicking? It's a bit of a shock for me."
Expectedly, Karnataka were among the first teams to seal a berth in the quarter-finals. They were set to regain their title-winning mojo after racking up five outright wins, the joint most by a side in the league stage this season. Shockingly, they were the first to be knocked out of the semi-finals.
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo