In Dravid they trust
The previous time Rahul Dravid played more than three Ranji matches in a season was in 1997-98, when he made a double-century in the final against Uttar Pradesh to help Karnataka to the trophy. Since then, he has hardly been available for Karnataka, his international duties erasing any chance of being part of a full campaign. Since then, his state has won one more Ranji title, but it has been mostly a decade of struggle.
This season he's played four matches, and Karnataka are again showing the all-conquering form of the late 90s. After years of being also-rans, Karnataka's revival also started with a match against UP last November - a 185-run demolition of Mohammad Kaif's side in the campaign opener in Meerut. Dravid was instrumental in that victory, compiling a measured 97 in a match-turning 277-run association with the gifted youngster Manish Pandey after Karnataka were reeling at 27 for 3.
When the two sides met again, it was in the semi-finals at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, which hasn't been a bowler's favourite over the past few years, with hardly any side managing to take 20 wickets. Ahead of the semi-final, both teams knew the match was likely to be something of a replay of the last time when Karnataka and UP met at the ground - the home side making 511 in nearly two days, only to see Kaif's boys pile on 567 and snatch three points for the first-innings lead.
The first thing Dravid did right in the game was win an important toss, but Karnataka were in danger of frittering that advantage after RP Singh's two-wicket over reduced them to 138 for 3. All three dismissed batsmen - in their early twenties age-wise - had been in for at least an hour, and each had crossed 30 without carrying on to a score that would really hurt UP.
There can hardly be a more reassuring sight than Dravid at the crease when your team is in a slight bother. As he done for India innumerable times over the past decade, Dravid calmed his team's nerves by blunting the UP attack. There were no flash strokes in the hour till tea, the only boundaries he stroked were a textbook cover drive and a whip to midwicket off a legstump half-volley. Otherwise, it was classic Dravid, solid defence mixed with a few singles to dissuade the opposition. In the 18 overs of the final session, he grafted 20 runs, persevering even after Pandey threw away his wicket for an eye-catching 66.
With the knowledge that even 500 will not be sufficient, he began the second day carefully as well. Only after the main threats, RP Singh and Praveen Kumar, had been seen off in the first hour, and Karnataka's score had crept past 300, did he unveil his full repertoire of strokes. Legspinner Piyush Chawla was carted for three fours in two overs, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was deftly leg-glanced for a boundary followed by a superbly timed on-drive for four more. There was even a late cut off Chawla to bring up the 350.
Dravid rarely took the foot off the gas after that, his final 147 runs consuming only 36 deliveries more than his first fifty. Even so, his first ugly stroke was only after he reached the double-century - an attempt to shovel a delivery from way outside off towards midwicket. He compensated for that, though, with a sweetly timed straight hit that cleared the top of the sightscreen.
What stood out in his innings was the determination, showcased by his annoyance at not finding the gap with a square cut when on 194 - Karnataka were in control with the total exceeding 550 by that stage, but he still chastised himself and practiced the stroke several times before the next delivery.
He returned to a standing ovation from the dressing room, which had at least four young batsmen ruing the shot selection that denied them a potential century. After navigating Karnataka towards their first Ranji final in 11 years, Dravid termed it a "truly satisfying day." He will be hoping his juniors have absorbed the lessons from an instructive innings because if Karnataka make the title clash, they won't have the failsafe Dravid to rely on, as he will be in Bangladesh for the Test series.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo