Karnataka, and the art of finding a way to win
It's been a season with challenges, but the Karnataka side have reached the Ranji knockouts as strong favourites nonetheless
One of the byproducts of dominating the domestic circuit is often not having the best players available for you at important times because they're either with India or India A. For Karnataka, having the cream of their batting away - KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and Manish Pandey - at different times during this Ranji Trophy season opened up windows of opportunity for the others.
What has worked for Karnataka is that they have had the likes of R Samarth and Karun Nair overcoming slumps to stand up when the "big stars" have been away. These are characteristics of champion teams, finding ways tide over the absences of key players. And now with Manish Pandey back in the line-up, Karnataka's batting, which seemed shaky until not long ago, receives a massive lift.
"It's a big boost," Nair, the captain, said ahead of the quarter-finals. "He has so many thoughts and ideas, just the way he is, he is a very positive person. It's really nice to have him back." Pandey's injection gives some leeway to a middle order still regaining its lost touch.
Samarth, for example, was left out of the side after scores of 11, 4 and 0 in his first two games, which came on the back of a poor season last year. His T20 and one-day performances too had been poor. From being an India A regular, Samarth found himself unable to even get a berth in the state side. Fortunately for him, the Indian team put through a request to rest Mayank Agarwal for the clash against Mumbai, ahead of India A's departure to New Zealand.
Samarth, who had left the camp, rejoined the team in Mumbai and turned his season around with a match-winning 86. That win gave Karnataka momentum. And since that 86, he's racked up scores of 34, 63, 74, 108 in four of his eight knocks, some of which Nair described as "tough runs that help the team."
The century against Madhya Pradesh came on a green top in Shimoga, one that pleased Samarth like no other. "I would rate that innings very highly," Samarth aid. "The wicket was doing a lot and I had to grind my teeth off. On such wickets, it was important to keep your mind fresh and be present in that moment. It was important to not focus on the previous ball."
Nair himself went through a lean run after a promising start to the domestic season that included a century and a 92 in the season-opening Duleep Trophy. Often, he'd get pretty 20s and then get out. Until it got to a point when external noises about his batting began to irk a normally shy and poker-faced Nair.
Prior to the final league game against Baroda, he'd made 220 runs in nine innings. On the third morning, with Karnataka looking to set up a first-innings advantage, Nair had a chat with Rahul Dravid before play began. The former India captain spoke to him about his shuffle and trigger movement. And while one chat is unlikely to have changed much technically, in the mind, Nair appeared calmer and responded with two solid outings in a match-winning cause. The form has returned now, as has his confidence.
Then there's young Devdutt Padikkal, the top run-getter in the Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophies. He started the season well and has six half-centuries, but hasn't been able to convert his starts into three figures.
As for Shreyas Gopal, he hasn't quite been the utility player that he was in past seasons. Previously, he had often been the batting crisis man if the top order failed. This season, he's neither managed runs nor the wickets he usually picks up by a handful. And while question marks have been raised over his place, the selectors have backed him despite having just 224 runs in 12 innings, along with eight wickets in seven matches. This is another chance to vindicate that call.
If despite all this, Karnataka, who don't have a single batsman with 600-plus runs or a bowler with 35-plus wickets going into the knockouts, it's because the runs and wickets have been distributed.
Abhimanyu Mithun has shouldered a bulk of the responsibility, picking 27 wickets while Ronit More has 20 scalps. In earlier seasons, the pace duo of R Vinay Kumar and Mithun have had a solid support cast. This season, Karnataka have struggled to nail down a third pace option consistently. Left-arm seamer Prateek Jain has been steady without being spectacular, while V Koushik has not quite built on a promising start.
But that was with Prasidh Krishna absent through injury. Prasidh returned for the match against Baroda, and brought in added incisiveness with his pace. Prasidh is tall, hits the deck hard, and is the only bowler capable of bowling in excess of 140 clicks in this line-up.
Yet for all their struggles at different times, Karnataka have found ways to get past the line. Somehow, all their form issues have ironed themselves out as the season has stretched. And now, Karnataka need one final push to make for an unprecedented domestic treble after bossing their way to the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy championship wins.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo