Having fallen behind in the race to be in the middle order of the Test team, Karun Nair served a timely reminder of his ability to dig in and make it count, and in the process be in sight of his first first-class century since December 2017. His 92 not out for India Red, a carefully constructed knock full of restraint and self-discipline, left India Blue wondering if they had misread the surface. On a day in which only 68 overs were possible, India Red put up 163 for 2, Nair putting together an unbroken 120-run stand with Ankit Kalsi, who ended the day unbeaten on 48.
The make up of the Duleep Trophy is such that the focus is largely on individuals rather than teams - made up of fringe players and domestic performers - and the platform was Nair's to do what he could with after his side lost openers Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran - both in the frame to be India's third opener - inside the first hour. Abhimanyu was out in the day's first over, lbw to a full-inswinging delivery from left-arm pacer Aniket Choudhary. Panchal fought through the first hour and then fell shortly after drinks when he wafted at one from Diwesh Pathania that left him.
From there on, Nair reconstructed the innings with a stoic display, going through long periods where he left the ball repeatedly even as the bowlers asked questions of him. The restraint also involved leaving alone full deliveries around the fifth stump, despite cover left open. He wasn't in the mood to oblige invitations to drive.
Against left-arm seamers, after being troubled early on by late inswing, he resorted to shuffling from outside leg, and found his groove immediately with a delightful on-drive to get going. The only lofted hit through the day was the chip over mid-off to bring up his half-century off left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar, off the 101st delivery he had faced. It was a shot that drew applause from his father, who for most parts of his knock was unmoved from his vantage point up in the grass banks.
His temperament and approach stood out in his 189-ball knock. Nair didn't play a single shot in anger and completely shelved the cut and sweep. Yet, he found ways to make up for the lost scoring opportunities. As the afternoon progressed and the field spread, he milked the singles without much hassle, and offered words of encouragement to his younger batting partner, who made 511 runs in seven Ranji Trophy innings last season.
"I had time to go away and think about my cricket and where I'm at. I thought about the mistakes and worked towards rectifying it." Karun Nair
"I had to grind my way early on, it wasn't easy," Nair said afterwards. "The ball was moving around early, and we needed stability at that stage. As a batsman, you have to first play to the situation. I was happy to have been able to fight my way through. It's not as if I made a conscious effort to cut down on some of the shots, but when you show discipline and it pays off at the end of the day on the scoreboard, it feels nice.
"This has come about because of my hard work. I've realised you can't keep throwing away starts, so I wanted to focus that much more. Starting the season well was important."
The last one year or so has been a testing one for Nair, who was dropped from the Test side after the England tour without being given an opportunity. Then he saw his replacement Hanuma Vihari make the XI and score a fighting half-century on debut. Then a string of low scores led to him being left out of the India A squad, of which he was captain until November 2018. Then an underwhelming Ranji Trophy season - 224 runs in ten innings - even led to the coaching staff contemplating resting the Test triple centurion. On to the IPL, where he was signed by Kings XI Punjab for INR 5.6 crore in 2018, he was largely forced to carry drinks. These led him to introspection, before he finally decided it was time to look ahead to the future "without any baggage".
This could have dented the confidence of most. It most certainly hurt Nair, something he made apparent in a rare blow-over of inner thoughts, which he likes to keep to himself at the best of times. He stated firmly that no one from the team management or the selection committee had spoken to him - an India A captain, a domestic regular for Karnataka. For Nair, recently engaged and in a phase he describes as "very happy", it's all in the past. The focus is on a reboot.
"I needed the break [after the IPL] mentally," he said. "I had time to go away and think about my cricket and where I'm at. I thought about the mistakes and worked towards rectifying it. I realised that I needed to just keep batting, even if it meant doing double sessions at times. The time lost can't come back. The best way to overcome confidence issues is if you can keep batting and spend long periods. So the last two months gave me that time and chance to work on my game and improve. Hoping it will pay off."