Pitch and approach wrong foot Karnataka
When Baroda decided to play their Ranji Trophy semi-final at the Reliance Stadium instead of their regular first-class venue, the Moti Bagh Stadium, they did so with an intent to blunt the rampant Karnataka pace attack, but they would certainly not have bargained for a dream entry into the final much before tea on the second day. The dramatic denouement is further magnified by the fact that the only other two-day finish this season involved a Plate League mismatch between Rajasthan - who are currently piling it on against Tamil Nadu in the semi-final - and Tripura - who lost four of their five games outright, three of them by an innings, and the other one by ten wickets.
Karnataka and Baroda were not as mismatched. Still, Karnataka were the overwhelming favourites going into the match against a side with four bowlers who had never taken a first-class five-wicket haul, a fifth bowler making his debut, and three batsmen with just one first-class century between them. Yet, it was the inexperienced young team that propelled Baroda to their first final in nine years, on a dry track that turned viciously throughout.
Thirty-three wickets tumbled in just under five sessions, and the surface - which looked straight out of a drought-hit area - was not a great advertisement for the knockouts of the country's premier first-class tournament. But it was definitely not unplayable, and the batsmen have to shoulder a part of the responsibility for the early finish. There was hardly an attempt to use the feet against spin to smother the turn, and Karnataka were especially guilty of being leaden-footed. Just hanging around, with balls gripping and biting, was of no use, and when shots were played they were off the wrong deliveries. Some fell trying to sweep balls that were too full to be trapped in front, others let the pitch prey on their minds and went fatally back to length deliveries, while some fell poking hard at balls that could have been left alone.
"We batted badly. There are no excuses if you want to win the Ranji Trophy. On any kind of surface, one should be able to put up the runs, like Mumbai do," Sanath Kumar, the Karnataka coach said. "Unfortunately, batting has been a problem for us throughout the season. We have struggled to put up runs in the first innings. They were the better side on the day. No question about it."
The game was shifted to the Reliance Stadium from Baroda's regular first-class venue, Moti Bagh Stadium. Sanath said that Karnataka were mentally switched on to play on the Moti Bagh track which helps the seamers throughout the match, and offers true bounce. "Our preparations were tuned accordingly. We never thought we would play here, and certainly did not expect it to turn so much."
Sanath also admitted that his side might have misread the wicket. "We thought it would be a batting track, and then take slow turn on the third and fourth day." This led Karnataka to play Sunil Raju, a batsman who could bowl spin, rather than opt for a second specialist spinner in Udit Patel alongside Sunil Joshi. "In hindsight, we would have played the extra spinner," he said. "But we opted to strengthen the batting instead." Moreover, Raju, who has had corrective work on his action, was cautioned in the first innings after a delivery reared up.
Karnataka certainly had the stronger batting, but Baroda's captain Pinal Shah turned the game with a pivotal 83. Mukesh Narula, the Baroda coach, felt that if Pinal could get runs on the surface, batsmen like Robin Uthappa and Manish Pandey could have done the same. "I have tremendous respect for their batsmen, guys like Robin, Manish and Amit Verma. And when we say the wicket was so tough to bat on, how was Pinal able to score? See, this was a wicket where you needed to play the horizontal-bat shots against the spinners, rather than play in the V. Most batsmen could not adjust, and paid the price. I also think that if they had come forward and left more deliveries rather than jab and poke from the crease, it wouldn't have been so bad."
Playing on such surfaces might not be ideal for a semi-final, but Narula felt that batsmen should be prepared to play on all wickets. "Are you telling me that we should never play on turning tracks? The Moti Bagh wicket helps the seamers a lot. In the quarter-final against Railways, from 300-odd for 4, we were seven-eight down in no time after they took the new ball. Now Sanjay Bangar and JP Yadav [the Railways seamers] are no match for Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and Sreenath Aravind. We thought there was no point in playing at Moti Bagh.
"I still admit that we don't have the side to beat Karnataka on any sort of wicket. And considering that, why would I want to play on as bad a wicket as this? It's just that it turned out to be worse than anyone expected."
While Baroda exploited home advantage perfectly, a disappointed Vinay felt that when it came to important games like the knockouts, the earlier policy of playing at neutral venues should be brought back to avoid such tumultuous matches in future.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo