KP Appanna has big boots to fill
"This could be the match," KP Appanna says, nodding his head seriously. Appanna, the 22-year-old Karnataka left-arm orthodox spinner, is referring to the third-round Ranji Trophy match against Mumbai that starts from November 17 at the Brabourne stadium in Mumbai. In Karnataka's previous match, against Railways, Appanna took career-best figures of 11 for 107, helping Karnataka win and go joint-top of their group with Mumbai. Now, Appanna wants to prove his worth against Ranji heavyweights Mumbai.
He has had a tough last two years: he was called for chucking in 2009-10 and did not play the whole of last season due to a knee injury. He is now ready to claim the role of Karnataka's premier spinner, a position that has belonged to Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Raghuram Bhat, Anil Kumble and, in the last decade, Sunil Joshi.
Appanna made his debut when he was 17, in the 2006-07 season, but Joshi, the former India left-arm spinner who was more than double his age then, was still going strong. In fact, in Appanna's first three seasons in the Karnataka squad, Joshi finished with 29, 34 and 33 wickets respectively. It was clear to Appanna that he would have to be patient. In 2009 Joshi was rested for the away match against Saurashtra. Karnataka came out with a resounding win but there was heartache for Appanna.
Bowling in the second innings, Appana was no-balled for chucking when he apparently bowled a "faster" one. Appanna is still confused by the decision. "I don't know what exactly I did wrong. They called me for only one ball. If I was actually chucking they should have called me every ball. I could not understand." The ball in question was an innocuous straight delivery. Appanna went to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore where the coaches could not find anything wrong with his action.
Luckily for Appanna, the Karnataka team supported him. Robin Uthappa was captain that season and, along with the coach, studied the video of the ball in question and asked the match officials what Appanna's error was. They never got any satisfactory answers. "I was told I had bowled a faster one," Appanna says.
Appanna let the incident go and says only good came out of it. "In a way it is good to face such incidents because you become mentally stronger. You can handle a lot then, be it a bad game or a bad patch or making a comeback."
Unfortunately, Appanna sustained a meniscus tear in his right knee while diving during a match in Bangalore in 2010. He was sidelined for nine months during which time he says he was a little disoriented and insecure. "When I got injured, for the first three or four months my thoughts were all over the place and I was thinking about how to make a comeback. But later on I realised you can't play cricket as if you are going to work. You have to enjoy the game."
One of the benefits of joining the Karnataka squad at such a young age was that Appanna spent time with Joshi, who Appanna says taught him to be disciplined. "His [Joshi's] commitment is exceptional. From the room, to the bus, to the ground, he is very professional. I was his roommate once and I learned so many things: we throw our clothes around the room but Jo [Joshi] kept everything in order. That discipline is the reason he can still play at 42 and survive. He has played 18 years of Ranji Trophy cricket. That is [almost] my age."
Joshi's extended career allowed Appanna time to come to grips with the demands of first-class cricket, but he was inconsistent. Though he got 21 wickets in his debut season in 2006-07, Appanna did not play many games in the following years. "Getting a Ranji debut is easy, but to stay there and play consistently is very hard," he says.
This year Joshi signed up as Hyderabad coach, confident that Appanna would assume the lead spinner's role. "He is a wicket-taking and attacking bowler," Joshi says of Appanna. But after toiling hard for over a decade on domestic tracks, Joshi says Appanna will need to understand that not every pitch will support spin. Appanna will need to be strong mentally and evolve as a spinner.
There is another suggestion Joshi has. He says that with three accomplished fast bowlers in the Karnataka side - R Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and S Aravind - Appanna will need to learn to play second fiddle at times. "The spinner's role becomes restrictive. He should be happy to bowl about 45 overs and take three to four wickets on unresponsive pitches. When you get a spinner-friendly pitch, then go for the kill."
Appanna is aware of the expectations of him. "The responsibility is all new. You are the main spinner. You have to do it. Before if I did not do it then Jo or somebody else would."
The 11-wicket haul against Railways could not have come at a better time. Though the Karnail Singh Stadium pitch in Delhi was a turning track, Appanna says part of his success belonged to Murali Kartik, who was bowling for the opposition. "I watched videos of his five-for in the first innings. He did not really give us loose balls at all. You have got to learn from certain people."
The day Appanna picked up five wickets in the first innings against Railways, Kumble asked Aravind to pass on his congratulations since he did not have Appanna's mobile number. But after Appanna added a further six wickets in the second innings to help Karnataka win, Kumble called him. "I was surprised. He only said 'well bowled' but I felt really happy," Appanna says, blushing.
A new challenge awaits him in Mumbai tomorrow. Like a golfer marking his birdies, Appanna wants Mumbai on his card. But he is not desperate. "Cricket is a game of patience. When it comes to a side like Mumbai you can't really afford to make mistakes. I am definitely willing to be patient. You have to do everything to play for India."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo