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Young brigade part of Karnataka's changing landscape

The Karnataka players celebrate after retaining the Irani Cup PTI

Barring Mumbai, arguably no team in India's domestic circuit has captured the imagination of fans quite like Karnataka in recent times. Since their historic double-treble over two successive seasons, plenty has changed in the state's cricketing landscape. Top among them is a number of players - such as KL Rahul, Karun Nair and Stuart Binny - who were at the center of their rise earning the India cap. Several others are on the fringes of the India A team. And this, astonishingly, despite the state's Under-23 side faltering in successive seasons.

Karnataka's inability to qualify for the semi-finals over the last two seasons may seem like a blot. But it doesn't tell you that they dominated the group stage both times. A bad slip-up against Maharashtra, where they only needed a first-innings lead, cost them a knockouts berth in 2015-16. Last season, they were sent packing inside two days on a treacherous Visakhapatnam surface by Tamil Nadu. The results raised questions about team harmony, players' commitment and their hunger to succeed.

A year later, these seem a thing of the past. Under the captain Vinay Kumar, Karnataka are now frontrunners to win their ninth Ranji Trophy title. Their demolition of Mumbai, who suffered only their fifth innings defeat ever in the tournament, has added to their aura of invincibility ahead of their semi-final clash against Vidarbha starting on December 17 in Kolkata.

Karnataka set the template for their supremacy early, starting their season with three successive outright wins. It helped them edge out Delhi in a tight finish for the top position on the Group A table. It was precisely the start Vinay had wanted. His message to the team at the start of the season had been pretty explicit: they weren't settling for anything less than outright wins.

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In 2013-14, Rahul was Karnataka's highest scorer with 1033 runs. The following year, it was Robin Uthappa. Those were the days when the likes of R Samarth, now a regular and one of the first names on the XI, and Mayank Agarwal were rookies. Today, Rahul has graduated to Test cricket and Uthappa has switched allegiance to Saurashtra. And with Nair and Manish Pandey, too, only sporadically available because of national commitments, it has given the two younger players a longer rope to establish themselves. And they have grabbed it to become driving forces of the batting unit.

Agarwal is this season's highest run-scorer, and should Karnataka go the distance, he even has a realistic chance of surpassing VVS Laxman's all-time season record of 1451 runs. Agarwal and Samarth are already the third most prolific opening combination, after Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane, and Gujarat's Priyank Panchal and Samit Gohel, in a single Ranji season in the last 12 years.

K Gowtham, the offspinning allrounder, returned from a three-year hiatus last year, and has since reinvented himself. Stints with India A and notable performances at the KPL brought him back into the reckoning, and he has become a key member of the bowling group. Shreyas Gopal, the legspinner, has been groomed to become a more attacking bowler.

These younger, less-heralded players have become the engine room of Karnataka's success, and their emergence has underpinned the team's season. "I'll be very happy if most of them play for India," Vinay, whose hat-trick set-up Karnataka's quarter-final win, tells ESPNcricinfo. "It gives an opportunity for others to step up. We have so many talented cricketers. (Kaunain) Abbas is sitting out, Pavan Deshpande, Sunil Raju, KB Pawan, Amit Verma, Shishir Bhavane... these are names that can easily fill any team-sheet in the Ranji Trophy."

The success of these players has resulted in more names coming into the national reckoning. Agarwal recently returned to the India A fold for the home series against New Zealand. Samarth travelled with them to South Africa and also played a part against New Zealand A.

But the downside of this kind of individual success has already been felt by the team in the past, when individual goals preceded the team's. The problem peaked in 2015-16, during the infamous CM Gautam-Uthappa wicket-keeping swap. For a team whose success was built on the virtues of a closely-knit group, that was a low.

"I think last year too we weren't gelling too well, because almost every other game we had changes, with two guys going into the Test team and two in the one-day team," Gautam, who was vice-captain during their dominant run from 2013 to 2015, says. "It was tough for them also to get back and play. This year, we decided that we can't say KL is coming and he has to take extra responsibility. We have some strong players waiting in the wings. So whether they come or not doesn't make a difference to other batsmen."

Karnataka have now settled back into a harmonious group, and regained sight of the common goal. Vinay's role in this transition, as a senior member and captain, has been significant. Since taking over as captain, Vinay has unfailingly led by example, fetching bagful of wickets season after season. Reticent by nature, he isn't quite an in-your-face leader. But he is a quiet source of strength. He is smart about managing his bowlers' workloads, as demonstrated when Sreenath Aravind, the injury-prone left-arm pacer, was rested midway through the season only to be brought back before the quarter-final.

"Being a senior and captain, I need to be very shrewd," Vinay said. "But I can't keep everyone happy; if the captain is keeping everyone happy, he is not doing his job."

Quietly assisting Vinay in the background is PV Shashikanth, the coach. The former Karnataka captain, who led a severely depleted team to victory over Rest of India in the 1996-97 Irani Trophy, has often dipped into his own experience as a player to bring out the best from this team.

The core of Karnataka's pace pack, which has been their strength over the last five years, has largely remained the same. And so, when he took over as coach, finding a second line of batsmen was on top of Shashikanth's list. So far, the pursuit has been rewarding.

Abbas, who struck a half-century against Mumbai in the quarter-final, was once considered to replace Agarwal. Others such as Dega Nischal and Abhishek Reddy scored heavily in the CK Nayudu Trophy and pressed their cases for future selection. Nischal, in fact, struck 195 in just his second first-class match, against Uttar Pradesh, and shared a 354-run stand with Pandey.

Though he took over from the hugely successful duo of J Arunkumar and Mansur Ali Khan, Shashikanth didn't find it hard to impress his style of coaching upon the team. His 15-year experience in coaching age-group state teams had already made him a familiar face to several members of the squad.

Coming in as coach of a team that has already recorded substantial achievements, Shashikanth set out trying to take them to the next level. The process began with introducing specific targets for players, which has given them more clarity regarding their roles.

"JAK [Arunkumar] was a positive coach," Gautam says of the former Karnataka captain. "He told us to play positive cricket and didn't care about the number of balls or anything. He likes attacking players. PV sir, on the other hand, gave batsmen a target of playing 250 balls. But, at the same time, he encourages us to be positive. Such clear roles that are easy to follow have worked well for us."

On the bowling front, it's about consistently delivering around the fourth-stump channel. "The important thing about this side is you give any surface to the bowlers, they are up there," Shashikanth explains. "That's a rare quality. Otherwise, it's a horses-for-courses thing. If there is lot of grass, pacers come to the fore, or if it's turning track, spinners come to the fore. But this team is unique in that whatever surface we bowl on, they are up there. That is a striking quality."

Those attributes were visible in Abhimanyu Mithun's robust spells in Pune and Alur. On flat surfaces, Mithun steamed in with purpose to pick up successive five-fors. Hitting the deck hard, he has often made docile tracks look a lot livelier, in the process overcoming his own slump and injuries that have riddled him over the last two seasons.

In the last three seasons, Karnataka have made the knockouts twice. By normal standards, that qualifies to be a more-than-decent performance for most teams. But for those that have followed this Karnataka side, especially through their ruthless, unblemished streak of six titles in two years, nothing short of winning the title would count as an acceptable result. Success does, after all, come at a price.