Fit and fresh Binny becomes Karnataka's go-to man
It was just after tea on the first day of Karnataka's final league game against Uttar Pradesh in Shimoga. The visitors had sliced through Karnataka's top six on a flat pitch, and Stuart Binny had only the bowlers for company as the score limped towards 200. Piyush Chawla, the India legspinner, was searching for a way into the tail, tossing up legbreaks and inviting the drive, while slipping in the odd googly on a similar length around off stump.
Binny reached out nonchalantly, getting his front foot inside the line, and swung the bat in a merry arc to carve the ball inside-out for six over the covers. He would go on to play that shot again in the second innings, once again after walking out in a mini-crisis. If you were to pick the stroke that defines the 2011 version of Binny, this would be it. When the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals kick off on January 2, Karnataka will be looking for more of that measured audacity from Binny, who has transformed into their go-to man this season.
Binny's returns cannot be measured by numbers alone, compelling as they are. He amassed 283 runs in Shimoga, taking his tournament tally to 686 runs (at an average of 76.22), making him the third-highest run-getter in the league stage. Thanks to the indifferent form of Karnataka's top-order, most of his runs have come in fire-fighting causes, yet they have been scored at an eye-popping strike-rate of 83.55, and have included 14 sixes - the most by a single player in the season. Eight years since his first-class debut, it is fair to say that Binny has finally arrived.
"I worked quite hard with our coach in the off-season, and this started a good three-four months before the Ranji season" Binny told ESPNcricinfo. "A little bit to do with technique, but more of a mental battle which I had to get past. I wanted to bat through my first 20 minutes to give myself a chance. Until last year I was often getting out for 20s and 30s which wasn't helping me.
"What I did this year was spending those 20 minutes at the crease without giving myself too many options to go at the bowling, and just bat time."
The mental transformation is only one part of the story. The resolve to bat for long periods of time had to be backed by physical fitness, and Binny worked overtime to shed the extra pounds from the past. The new and improved Binny bares very little resemblance to the rotund player of previous years.
"Before I started serious nets and practice for the season, I trained really hard to get into shape," Binny said. "There was not much bowling and batting during that time. I started by training regimen immediately after the IPL and it carried on for two whole months. Initially I did a lot of cardio for two months to drop some weight. Then I gradually got into the gym to work on my strengthening.
"I was touching 90 kilos last year, but I am nine kilos down on that now."
Binny's mental resolve has allowed him to grind his way through the first 20-30 minutes at the crease. His natural aggression then takes over, especially against spin, which explains his high strike-rate. "My game, from the time I was a kid, has always been to attack the spinners. It is all about the shot selection this year. I make a very big effort to hit with the spin most of the time.
"I was keen to attack Chawla from the outset [in Shimoga]. Guys who have played Test cricket and come back; if you have a go at them early they don't like it. I played against Chawla last year when I got a 100 against UP in the second innings. Every time I had a go early at him, he wouldn't land the ball too well after that. I just backed myself to go over the covers and it came off.
"[Similarly] I looked to go over the top whenever I could against Rahul Sharma, in the game against Punjab, though he didn't give any freebies. As a game plan, this works well for me."
Binny expected to succeed as a batsman, but he's surprised himself by also making a telling contribution with the ball. Injuries and international duty have meant that Karnataka have been without their main seamers - R Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and S Aravind - for most of the season. But Binny has seamlessly plugged the breach with his medium-pace swing. He has taken 15 wickets at 20.73 this year, including a 10-wicket haul against Orissa.
"I only used to bowl the odd four-five over spell in my first few years, because you had Vinay, Mithun, Aravind and Ayyappa doing the bulk of the workload," Binny explained. "So I used to just bowl just to give them a break. But this year, with some of these guys missing, I needed to bowl a lot, and they had to be good overs - not just fill-in overs.
"Once you bowl a bit in four-day cricket, you can experiment with swinging the ball, and try to plan and bowl in different areas. Once I got wickets in Orissa, I guess my bowling automatically went a level higher. It is just the confidence of knowing I can get wickets, and that opportunity comes once you put in the overs. Vinay is a disciplined, intelligent bowler, he is not express. He's passed that on to the rest of us, how to bowl good areas, and how to work the batsmen out."
Karnataka could only collect two points from their last two fixtures, allowing Mumbai to top Group A. Yet, there were positives to be taken, especially from Shimoga, where the captain Ganesh Satish finally got a big score, and Amit Verma suggested prime form ahead of the knockouts.
"We set high standards for ourselves before the Ranji Trophy, and are looking to be in the final," Binny said. "Everyone is in top firm in the nets. It is a young team, very hungry and there's a wealth of bench-strength despite us not having three of our top bowlers. I'd say we are looking very good."
Binny credits Kartik Jeshwant's free-style approach to coaching for Karnataka's impressive run through the league stages despite the absence of their first-choice seam attack. ""We started the preparation early this year," Binny said. "Jeshwant Sir took aside four-five of us that he knew really well, helped us plan ahead and made sure that we worked on our games at that point. Even with youngsters, he is a very free coach. He allows you to do things your way.
"Some coaches expect you to do everything they say. But he understands your style - if it works it works, else you can go back to the old way. That's really important, especially with a young team like ours where the average age is 22-23."
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo