Karnataka boosted by Dravid's return
There is an interesting fact about Rahul Dravid playing the quarter-final clash against Saurasthra from Friday: the game will be his first first-class match at the Brabourne Stadium. Dravid, who flew in to Mumbai from Mohali to join the squad previous evening, will be the main attraction, and his presence is likely to tilt the scales heavily in favour of Karnataka.
Dravid might start with a few nerves, but his convincing return to form in Mohali against England where he scored a patient century, will be a definite advantage for Robin Uthappa's team, which does not feature a single batsman who has crossed the 500-run mark this season. Even Uthappa, appointed the captain this year, has not been able to convert the starts, though he is the team's highest run-maker with 455 runs including two centuries in the first three games. Probably the most reliable batsman in the side is B Akhil, an allrounder, who notched up a century and two half-centuries in the three games he played.
The inconsistency of their batting order made Dravid's return imminent even if it was close on the heels of the England Test series. "It was on the team's request I came because it is a crucial game," Dravid said after a light training session in the morning. Dravid had already made his presence felt in the two games he played, against Andhra and Baroda, as he rebuilt the innings after top-order collapses with two fifties. Karnataka won both the games.
Uthappa was happy to have Dravid in the line-up, but pointed out Karnataka was confident even in his absence. "Rahul makes a difference, but it doesn't boost the side," Uthappa said.
One performer who has boosted Karnataka's spirits, and is likely to play once again a winning hand, is Sunil Joshi. Probably the oldest player in the tournament, Joshi celebrated his 100th first-class match for Karnataka with 11 wickets in the final league match, against Maharashtra. His experience and the bounce on offer on the CCI pitch will be twin factors that might pose some tricky questions for the Saurashtra batsmen.
Based on the evidence of the two games played this season, by Mumbai, the pitch has something for everyone, which might make it an enticing contest especially with Uthappa keen to avenge the close defeat Saurashtra inflicted on them last season. "We want to settle scores after the three-run defeat even if we had taken the first-innings lead the previous season [2006-07]," Uthappa said.
Saurashtra have fought hard to make it to the knockouts for the second straight year after qualifying to the Super League three years ago. This time they got off to a false start after being forced to follow-on against Gujarat, a game they lost by an innings and 227 runs as they failed against the pace and spin of Siddharth Trivedi and Mohnish Parmar.
Then, going into their final league game, against Hyderabad, they were in a must-win situation as Delhi were hot on their trail to qualify as the third team from Group A. But they got off to a terrible start, folding easily for 133 having elected to bat. But Ravindra Jadeja, probably their best player at the moment, picked a seven-wicket haul in the final innings to seal Saurashtra's place in the last eight.
Jadeja, who prospered with his handy cameos for Rajasthan Royals during the IPL, also shared the record partnership for the fifth-wicket with Cheteshwar Pujara, the team's run machine and third on the leading scorers' list this year, against Orissa as Saurashtra bounced back after the first-round loss. Jadeja, who bowls left-arm spin, is also the team's leading wicket-taker with a tally of 30 wickets and just like Joshi has shown a penchant to excel in pressure situations.
Pujara has been the backbone of Saurashtra's batting as whenever he has scored big Saurashtra have been successful. He has knowledge of the local conditions having played for Indian Oil Corporation in the local corporate league and will be the key wicket Karanataka's bowlers will be hungry for.
This is the first instance both teams are playing outside home turf which will only add to the allure of the contest. Uthappa said the "consistent" nature of the pitch will provide an even game while Dravid felt it was beneficial for the players that the game was happening at a neutral venue. "Neutral venue is an interesting idea and should not be dismissed without fair trial. Lot of people have criticised pitches across the country but this is an opportunity to correct the faults", Dravid said, implying there would be no pressure from either team on the nature of the pitch.
Karnataka (probable) Robin Uthappa (capt), KB Pawan, CM Gautam, Rahul Dravid, C Raghu, Thilak Naidu (wk), B Akhil, Sunil Joshi, R Vinay Kumar, KP Appanna/Sunil Raju, NC Aiyappa.
Saurashtra (probable) Jaydev Shah (capt), Bhushan Chouhan, Chirag Pathak, Sitanshu Kotak, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, Sagar Jogiyani (wk), Rakesh Dhruv, Sandeep Jobanputra, Kamlesh Makvana, Balkrishna Jadeja
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo