Unpredictable wicket awaits both teams
"You can't take any team lightly these days. You don't know which bush will throw up what snake." These words, by Vijay Bharadwaj, the Karnataka coach, indicates how cautiously they are approaching the Ranji Trophy game against Himachal Pradesh. Karnataka will start as clear favourites, though: the team has Anil Kumble, who has just become the national captain, and Rahul Dravid, fresh from a double-hundred. Plus, they are playing at home.
Both teams are carrying just one point from their previous games, as the batting let them down in the first innings. Karnataka collapsed against the spin of Ramesh Powar on a tricky first-day wicket against Mumbai while HP struggled against the Saurashtra spinners - Kamlesh Makvana and Rakesh Dhurv - and collapsed sensationally from 131 for 1 to 181.
"It was one bad session of batting that cost us dearly," Sandeep Sharma, HP's captain, said. "But we are confident of a better show against Karnataka. Our bowling is in very good shape and I am sure the batsmen will come to the party."
Sharma has reason to believe that his team won't be embarrassed. In Vikramjeet Singh Malik and Ashok Thakur, the left-arm seamer who took 11 wickets in the last game, they have a decent pace attack. And spin is their main strike weapon as they have the in-form left-arm spinner Vishal Bhatia and Sarandeep Singh, the former India offspinner who moved from Punjab to HP last season. Bhatia, who was the highest wicket-taker in the Plate league with 38 victims, and Sarandeep, who took 28 wickets last season, ensured that HP didn't lose a single game en route to becoming the Plate champions.
Their batting will be led by the captain himself and he will look to the young players like Paras Dogra, wicketkeeper Maninder Bisla, and Manish Gupta to get the runs on the board. Dogra was the top scorer last season with 528 runs at 48, while Sharma, too, enjoyed a good season.
They have a fairly unchanged nucleus for the last three years. "We all know each other pretty well, there are quite a few talented youngsters, and it's a very healthy attitude that prevails in our camp," Sharma said. How these youngsters adapt to the challenge of playing against the experienced Karnataka players on an untested wicket will be the key.
The pitch is of some concern as it was recently re-laid, and just a couple of games have been played on the new surface. The top layer has been changed, with soil brought in from Kakinada, a district in Andhra Pradesh. It's anybody's guess how the track will play; some players from both teams think it will assist spinners fairly early in the game as they reckoned the top surface is quite powdery. The curator, however, is confident it will hold up for the game.
"We have left a sprinkling of grass on the track and it should hold up. It should be a sporting wicket," Narayan Raju, the chief curator, told Cricinfo. "Of course it will take spin, perhaps from the end of the second day or by the third day."
Both teams have said that they will bat first if the coin falls in their favour. "Since it's a newly laid track, we would look to bat first," Bharadwaj said.
Dravid practised for nearly a couple of hours in the morning on the practice wickets and he would be itching to have another big knock under his belt before the Tests against Pakistan. Kumble, who was in Mumbai for the selection meeting, is expected to fly back tonight and will pair up with Sunil Joshi as Karnataka's spin weapons. The fast bowlers, Kumble will hope his fast bowlers - Vinay Kumar and NC Aiyappa, who was restricted to just one game due to an injury in the last season and bowled well only in patches in the last game - can put up a good show. Karnataka is likely to go with the same team that drew against Mumbai, while HP will finalise their playing XI tomorrow.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo