A second successive year of a semi-final heartbreak in the Ranji Trophy has left Karnataka at the crossroads. That may sound a strange thing to say for a side that has finished in the top four in a season that had 37 teams competing. But for Karnataka, the road ahead holds a few questions they'll need answers to, even though this was a season that holds more positives than negatives.
The missing big runs
In recent years, when Karnataka have done well, they've always had one of the top-order batsmen scoring big runs. When they won the title in 2013-14, KL Rahul made 1033 runs. In their successful title defence in 2014-15, Robin Uthappa made 912 runs while Rahul had 838 from just five games. In the next two seasons, their top run-getters didn't breach the 800-run mark, before Mayank Agarwal had a breakout last season with 1160 runs.
This year, KV Siddharth led the charts for Karnataka with 728 runs. It was an excellent return for a man in his debut season, but for a championship run, that figure as the topmost can only work if the bowling unit has been the best by a distance.
"If you look at it throughout the season, in the first 15 overs we have lost two wickets in most of the matches," coach Yere Goud said after their semi-final defeat to Saurashtra. "Whether we have batted first or second, we've lost two early wickets. That has been the case throughout the season, that it has been the tail like Shreyas (Gopal) or Vinay (Kumar) who have got us to a solid total from where we are able to win the game.
"The team is in a transition phase, we've built it for two to three years now, it is time for us to take the team forward now" YERE GOUD
"It is not about hitting boundaries and sixes, it is about playing the sessions. You can only play sessions if you have a solid defence and you are able to rotate the strike playing along the ground. That is the message we have already sent to the boys. The coming season they'll definitely improve and come back."
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Goud wasn't far off the mark. In 20 team innings this season, only five times have Karnataka had more than 50 on the board before the second wicket fell. Only twice has it been with the score more than 100. By contrast, 13 of the innings have had the second wicket fall when the score was 30 or less, four times in single digits. It is no coincidence that Shreyas (524 runs) and Vinay (332 runs) are third and fifth on the run charts for Karnataka.
India A matches being scheduled in parallel with the domestic season did affect the team since the likes of Manish Pandey and Karun Nair weren't available throughout the season, but while Pandey did score the runs expected of him when he returned, Nair's tepid form - two fifties in five matches and an average of 24.88 - hurt Karnataka.
Karnataka's second-highest run-scorer this season was D Nischal. He had begun brightly, but stumbled a bit in the latter half. Consequently, he was left out of the semi-final in favour of the more experienced R Samarth.
"Yes, Nischal was in good form, but last five innings he went into a sort of shell to be honest," Goud explained. "And Samarth batted well against Rajasthan (in the quarter-final), in the first innings and second innings he got out to the spinners. We thought with his experience, it's a big game, he might come good."
Samarth endured a horror season, aggregating 168 runs in seven matches at an average of 12.92. His form was also a big factor in the instability at the top.
This season saw the fading away of Stuart Binny and CM Gautam too. Binny played two games before being dropped, Gautam wasn't in the squad for the full season. Both men have been effective allrounders for several years for Karnataka - Binny with bat and ball, Gautam with bat and gloves - and finding equivalent replacements for them was never going to be easy. Both of them, with Uthappa and Rahul, had been key members of the side that won in 2013-15. Rahul, of course, wasn't available because of his duties with the national team, as was Agarwal. Uthappa might have been taking on his old team in the semi-final, having moved to Saurashtra a couple of seasons back, but has sat out the entire season owing to injury. Even if current form might not have earned the three of them spots in the XI, the holes left by their absences have not been filled fully.
"To be honest, the team is in a transition phase," Goud said. "We've built it for two to three years now, it is time for us to take the team forward now."
There was also a new captain this season in Pandey, having taken over from the long-serving Vinay. What that means for the team, will perhaps be felt only with more matches, as Pandey settles into his role.
Life after Vinay Kumar?
In the semi-final, Vinay was the bowler who looked most likely to take Karnataka to victory. He took the first two wickets, and he was the one off whom Karnataka were convinced Cheteshwar Pujara had got an edge when on 34.
What observers were wondering was whether this was Vinay's last hurrah. Until that second innings, the wickets had dried up for Vinay. He had 11 coming into the semi-final - in his heyday he might have had that many in a single match.
That despite losing pace - he was bowling in the low 120s for large parts - Vinay retains skill and canniness as a bowler was a given. He showed as much against Saurashtra. But what the reduced pace has done, is make the margin for error that much less. If he's in rhythm and moving the ball subtly away or in, he's still a threat. A little below that, though, and teams have picked him off comfortably. He was always a valuable batsman lower down, but this might be the first season his batting has been of more value to Karnataka than his bowling.
"Vinay has bowled really well in most matches. He has been unlucky," Goud said. "Catches were dropped off his bowling, but he's bowled really well and kept one end tight for us. That is what we expected. With (Abhimanyu) Mithun and Ronit (More) being the strike bowlers, we wanted someone to hold up one end and Vinay did the job superbly for us."
Vinay did have a lower economy rate than More and Mithun, but only marginally so. In contrast, More's 37 wickets - he was easily Karnataka's brightest spot with the ball in the season - and Mithun's 26 wickets dwarfed Vinay's haul of 14.
Set to turn 35 in a fortnight, the question for Karnataka's selectors will be whether Vinay commands a place in the XI on his bowling. After all, there is Prasidh Krishna waiting in the wings. On the other hand, Karnataka haven't yet found effective replacements for Vinay's colleagues from that 2013-15 side who are no longer part of the squad now. Can they afford to think of life beyond Vinay yet?
Whichever way the selectors go, it will be a big call to a question that has no straightforward answers.