It was a result not too many saw coming. Karnataka, the double-treble winning domestic champions, were brought down to their knees by Maharashtra - no rank outsiders by any means - in Pune as their Ranji Trophy campaign came to a grinding halt in the league phase. The defeat ended Karnataka's three-year unbeaten streak that spanned 37 first-class matches, two Irani Cup triumphs and a thrashing of a Bangladesh A team boasting many internationals inside three days in Mysore earlier this year. There were a number of areas where the team could not strike a proper balance this season.
Constant chopping and changing
Unlike the last two seasons where there was a settled look to the side, Karnataka were this year often forced to field under-strength XIs because of injuries, form or losing personnel to national duties. A trend that started with the season opener against Assam continued till the end of the league phase, resulting in an air of uncertainty.
Against Assam, they were without Stuart Binny and S Aravind, who were both part of India's Twenty20 squad for the series against South Africa, while KL Rahul was unavailable because of a quadriceps injury he sustained during the tour of Sri Lanka.
When the three of them returned, the team was stung by the absence of Manish Pandey in the middle order after he sustained a finger injury against Haryana, while Abhimanyu Mithun, the third highest wicket-taker for the team last season with 39 scalps, also missed a number of games because of an ankle strain. With youngsters like Shishir Bhavane and Abhishek Reddy shunted in and out, the pressure of shepherding the batting fell on Robin Uthappa, whose lean run in the first half of the tournament affected the batting dynamics.
Over-reliance on the pace attack
Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and Aravind towered over the rest during their title-winning run over the last two seasons, often running through batting line-ups on green tracks to set the game up for the batsmen. This year, with Mithun injured and Aravind missing a number of games, the burden of leading an inexperienced attack fell on Vinay, the captain, who, by his lofty standards, was not even on the first scroll of the season's bowling charts.
On a number of occasions, Karnataka could not close out matches from winning position because of their inability to bowl the opposition out in the second innings with a little more than a day's play remaining. Assam blunted the attack on the final day to walk away with three points, while Delhi, Bengal and Vidarbha, who lost the lead, managed to salvage one valuable point. That Vinay's 24 wickets were the highest by any bowler in the group says another story.
Absence of a genuine spinner
While turners of varying degrees were the breeding ground for spinners across the country, the absence of a quality slow bowler affected Karnataka at various stages during the season. Shreyas Gopal, originally picked as a batting allrounder, somewhat covered up the gaping hole with his exploits with the ball in the first two seasons, but lacked the bite this time around. J Suchith, another batting allrounder who was fast-tracked into the first-class setup because of his exploits with his slow left-arm spin for Mumbai Indians in the IPL, was also rendered ineffective. Suchith's mode of operation - flatter in trajectory - lent a bit of predictability to Karnataka's spin stocks. With the only other option being Udit Patel, who has a total of 68 wickets in 35 first-class matches, Karnataka were crying out for quality spin.
Frequent middle-order implosions
Pandey's unavailability put immense pressure on Uthappa, who had an ordinary first half of the season. When he returned to form by scoring three successive tons in the second half, he was often the only one with a giant contribution. Karun Nair, who graduated to India A and even made the Test squad in Sri Lanka, somewhat failed to translate the consistency of his debut season. His patchy run last year was somewhat cancelled by a match-winning triple-century in the final against Tamil Nadu in Mumbai. This season, however, a modest 500 runs from 11 innings - a good chunk of those runs coming courtesy two centuries - resulted in the batting becoming that much thinner. The revolving door over the opening slot , with Uthappa, R Samarth, Mayank Agarwal and Rahul occupying the position at different times, also added to the team's challenges.
Shared wicketkeeping duties
Vinay often maintained that the unifying goal of playing for India kept the team through thick and thin. Unfortunately this season, it resulted in a discord with Uthappa and CM Gautam being in the middle of an unwanted restructuring.
Karnataka began to alternate wicketkeeping duties between Uthappa and Gautam at the behest of KSCA secretary Brijesh Patel to facilitate Uthappa's return to international cricket as a wicketkeeper-batsman. The decision, which gave Karnataka's batting coach J Arun Kumar "sleepless nights", resulted in a bit of friction as Gautam confessed that switching between fielding and wicketkeeping was a "little irritating."
The original plan of having both of them alternate between matches was then revised to both players donning the gloves for one innings each. Uthappa, who is a regular wicketkeeper for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, reasoned that it was important for him to keep in touch with the job in order to have a crack at playing for India. Gautam, who has kept wickets all his life, felt it was a touch unfair. Sanity prevailed as the season progressed, with Gautam returning to his designated role, but the confusion would have added a bit of unwanted headache to the team management.