Karnataka travelled to Mumbai for their Ranji Trophy final with a 16-member squad, besides the eight support staff. On the fourth evening, Mayank Agarwal, Ronit More, Kunal Kapoor and Abrar Kazi were brought over. The Karnataka team management and state association ensured everyone, except Stuart Binny who is at the World Cup, who had contributed to their dominant campaign was at the Wankhede Stadium to get their hands on the trophy.
In today's fiercely competitive domestic circuit, seldom do we see a group of cricketers playing for each other. Enjoying each other's success. Backing each other. Protecting each other, both on and off the field. All these virtues have been evident in the Karnataka team over the last five years. And the results are showing now as they defended their title and barely let their guard down in the entire season.
The seeds of team bonding were sown at a dinner in Robin Uthappa's house midway through the last season. He had discussed the idea with batting coach J Arunkumar and the other seniors and the informal meeting was a success. The camaraderie between the players has increased not just on the field, but off it as well.
"We all get together very well. Even when there is no match, we all get together at Robin's or my house and have a good time. There is a sense of family in the team," Arunkumar says. "We had to get certain things right. We had to start certain patterns of team bonding. We made a conscious effort to get some pattern into the team and slowly it became a habit. There is a way to make sure that people enjoy what we are doing also, so we added an element of fun."
The unity in the team has added another dimension to Karnataka. During their last league game in Mumbai, wicketkeeper CM Gautam was involved in a scuffle with Mumbai batsman Siddhesh Lad. For the remainder of the match, and during the sem-final as well, the Karnataka players kept sledging Lad.
"We have each other's backs," Uthappa says. "You cannot say one thing to us - you will have 16-17 guys after your life if you say one thing to us. I think you got an example of that in the Mumbai game here, when Siddhesh threw the ball on CM Gautam, and we had 15 of us standing there and we said 'you just come in and bat, we're going to eat you up'. That's the kind of unity we have in our side.
"This is us and we care for our unit. We love our unit and we'll protect it no matter what. Even if someone from inside is trying to do something funny, we set them right. We put them in place. We know what works for us and staying together is what makes this team really, really successful. We train hard together, we train really well. Our work ethics have been excellent in the last two-three years, and it's a young bunch of boys, all of us want to play the next level and we've got all the ingredients to be a successful team."
Both of Karnataka's successful triumphs were special in different ways. Their victory ended a 15-year title drought. This year they came in as favourites and that came with a lot of expectation. Karntaka simply welcomed it and showed champions thrive under any kind of pressure.
"It is many years of hard work I would say," Vinay Kumar says after becoming the first Karnataka captain to two successive Ranji titles. "Last year we won the Ranji Trophy, we worked really hard as a group. When we lost to Mumbai in Mysore [in the 2009-10 final], that was a bunch which was growing as a team. Once the confidence level and maturity level increased, everything came good in the last season and we played Ranji trophy. Winning it last year really helped us to motivate ourselves to perform this year."
Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the last Ranji captain before Vinay to win back-to-back Ranji titles, agrees that Karnataka have been playing like "a champion team" for a while now.
"Being confident, highly motivated and being tenacious are the primary requisites for a team to succeed. And Karnataka have been ticking all these boxes. The hallmark of a champion team is it doesn't give up irrespective of the position of the game and the conditions it is playing in. That can only come if the whole team is committed and moving in one direction," Kanitkar says.
"Karnataka have been showing all these skills for the last four-five years. Even when we [Rajasthan] won the titles [in 2010-11 and 2011-12] or Mumbai won [in 2012-13], Karnataka was the team to beat since they made the opponents work for every single run, every single wicket. We knew we had to fight against them for every ball for four or five days. That's setting them apart at this moment."
Karnataka began the league stages with an emphatic victory, were assured of a place in the knockouts halfway into the league stage and earned room for experimentation. They rested each of their three seamers - Vinay, Abhiamnyu Mithun and S Aravind - before the quarter-finals.
The top-six batsmen hadn't clicked in the first three games. So Arunkumar started his hunt for the best combination. Although Karnataka were made to struggle in a drawn game with Baroda and conceded the first innings lead to Mumbai later, they were not deterred. They knew they were setting themselves up for the knockouts, to field their best XI from the quarterfinals and there on.
Assam found that out when they were buried under a huge first-innings total. Mumbai found that out when they were bundled out for 44. And Tamil Nadu found that out when they were left in Karun Nair's slipstream.
Uthappa and Vinay emerged as the Ranji Trophy's leading run-getter and joint-highest wicket-taker respectively. Their contributions off the field have been just as important.
"The best part about these guys is they are leading by example. I have seen a lot of seniors in other states also who set bad examples," Arunkumar says. "They will just bowl their quota of overs, or bat and sit outside, so even the juniors see that and start doing the same when they become seniors,"
"But these guys are setting all the right examples. They know equality in the team is very important. If a Vinay goes out and sits in the dressing room for two hours, he knows it's going to send a wrong vibe to the younger lot. That doesn't happen. Vinay doesn't do that. Robin doesn't do that. They set very good examples. When the captain is motivated, the teams also gets motivated."
Uthappa admits he and Vinay revel in their roles as seniors. "For me, one of the most integral things is, as a senior, you want to make the juniors most comfortable. You want to make sure there is no gap between a senior and a junior. Everyone's treated equally, taken care of, given a work ethic and helped. My job is to make sure that everyone is thinking and feeling right, that's my responsibility in the side."
At the same time, the youngsters in the team should also be given some sense of responsibility and belonging and sensing their generation doesn't like to be lectured too much, Arunkumar and head coach Mansur Ali Khan made them talk rather than talking to them.
"We gave responsibility to all the boys to talk and take the lead. In our team meetings, we have one batsman and one bowler talk about the team in each of the meetings. He may not be playing in the XI in that match but he along with everyone gets a sense of belonging. That's where the rest follow," Arunkumar says.
With all the ingredients in place, Karnataka look set to dominate the domestic scene for a long time. Vinay and Arunkumar feel they can continue their supremacy for the next five years, Uthappa raises the bar even more.
"I think we've got that stuff now. This bunch of boys, we have it in us to win domestic tournaments for a good five-seven years," Uthappa says. "We're a very young lot, so easily the next five-seven years. I think Karnataka must protect this lot."
"It's something that we take pride in, our pride depends on being successful. So when we win tournaments, we feel like 'Yes, we have accomplished this. We have done this, let's move forward to the next one.' So we know that we want to win the Irani Cup. No one's ever won three tournaments - the domestic, the one-day and then the premier one-off. No team in the world has done it. And for us to do it twice in two years, I don't think people will do it for a hundred years."
Kanitkar is of a similar opinion and sees the attitude that the old Mumbai teams - which he faced for well over a decade during his stint with Maharashtra - in the current Karnataka lot.
"Experienced players are secure. Youngsters are hungry for success and also willing to learn to seniors, something that doesn't necessarily happen everywhere these days. As a result, the team is playing only for a united goal. That is what the old Bombay teams used to be like earlier. And this Karnataka group is very similar to that."