Vinay Kumar's calm exterior didn't betray a sense of jubilation at the return of KL Rahul and Manish Pandey, Karnataka's two prolific and senior batsmen, for their Ranji Trophy clash against Delhi in Alur, starting Thursday. That they have chosen to join the squad straight off a flight from the T20I series against New Zealand that concluded in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday night, reinforces their hunger to perform.
Individually, this match fulfills important goals for both batsmen. For Pandey, this is another opportunity to score the big runs that brought him into national reckoning in the first place, and somewhat overcome the frustration of missing out on a regular berth in the XI after being shuffled up and down the order. For Rahul, who hasn't featured in the limited-overs format since Sri Lanka despite being in the squad, this is an opportunity to get some batting time ahead of the first Test against Sri Lanka in Kolkata, starting November 16.
"It's good to have Manish and KL back," Vinay said. "As I earlier mentioned in the Shimoga game (against Hyderabad), having KL and Karun straight away put the pressure on the opposition. Delhi is a good side, and with them coming in, our batting is going to be very good."
The on-and-off presence of Rahul, Pandey, and more occasionally, Karun Nair, has left Karnataka brittle at times. But, equally, it has pushed them to tap deep into their reserves and give younger players opportunities to impress. Mayank Agarwal, who may have not been a regular had Robin Uthappa not moved states, or Rahul been around at the start of the season, has capitalised, scoring a triple-century in the previous game. Others, like Agarwal, too have stepped up, and the results so far have given the team management no headaches.
"Frankly, I'd love three-four guys playing for India from our team, because there are many cricketers who are sitting out," Vinay said. "If they play here for us, it's definitely a boost for the team, but if they play there, they are serving for the country and others will get an opportunity to serve Karnataka. And that way we're very flexible. I'm okay for both."
With three outright wins in as many matches, Karnataka have had a spotless start to their season and flashed glimpses of the dominant force that clinched six domestic titles between 2013-14 and 2014-15. But Delhi are trailing them closely. In fact, the only reason they are placed second is because they have one less outright win, which they claimed to have been denied in controversial circumstances by Assam.
In a condensed league format, where teams are vying for outright wins every time they step on the field, marginal differences in the points table can have massive consequences. And it leaves minimal room for errors, especially on the field.
"We have dropped a few catches, but it's improving," Vinay said. "In Shimoga, there was a bit of a problem in sighting the ball. But we were too good in the previous game against Maharashtra, and hopefully, that'll continue. They're all mature and can see for themselves what they were doing wrong. They might have rectified it themselves. As a captain, it's for me to make sure that it all comes together and everyone has proper team goals."
The upside of fewer league matches, however, has been longer breaks between games. Especially after last year's punishing travel schedules owing to the BCCI's neutral-venue policy, the additional rest has been much-needed. But Vinay played down their impact and instead stressed on smart training, and fewer, more quality net sessions.
"We are having only one practice session. Most of the times, our seamers are bowling more, so they need that extra break. We used to have two net sessions; now, we have one rigorous session and one optional session. That might help the seamers to come really fresh into the game."