Karnataka face UP challenge

Cricket: Ranji Trophy: Dravids youthful team eyes Meerut encore in familiar conditions

Karnataka face UP challenge

Hitmen: The Karnataka pace trio of S Arvind, R Vinay Kumar and A Mithun (from left) has accounted for 95 wickets this Ranji Trophy season. DH PHOTO/ SRIKANTA SHARMA R

It was their thumping 185-run win against Uttar Pradesh in the season-opener in Meerut that set the tone for Karnataka’s impressive run this year. Now, Rahul Dravid’s men must pull off an encore against last year’s beaten finalists if they are to make the Ranji final for the first time since 1999.

Beyond confidence, Karnataka can’t take too much else from that Meerut encounter into the four-day last-four showdown beginning at the Chinnaswamy stadium on Sunday.
As Dravid himself pointed out, Karnataka caught UP somewhat cold in Meerut. The plethora of young guns of whom Mohammad Kaif’s side had little knowledge or first-hand experience took UP totally by surprise, none more emphatically than Manish Pandey and A Mithun.

Pandey, the top run-scorer for the State this season, conjured a sensational 194 under extreme pressure to set the base alongside his captain for a massive first-innings total, then ceded centrestage to Mithun, whose first-class debut was fairytale stuff.

The strapping 20-year-old terrorised the UP batsmen with searing pace and his ability to get the ball to bounce significantly from a good length on his way to twin five-wicket hauls, the icing on the cake a sensational second-innings hat-trick. Understandably, Mithun hasn’t been able to emulate his 11-wicket heroics of his first game, but 34 scalps from seven matches in his maiden season must go down as an exceptional, and influential, effort.

Mithun’s emergence as a genuine wicket-taker has helped R Vinay Kumar too come into his own. At 25, Vinay is already a seasoned campaigner, but over the last couple of seasons, he has at once had to don the stock and shock bowler’s garbs. With Mithun for company, Vinay has grown significantly in stature as the season has gone by, illustrated by a country-high 38 wickets that ought to have attracted greater recognition from the men who matter.

For the first time in recent memory, Karnataka’s bowling line-up is pace-heavy. The two new-ball bowlers have been complemented quite beautifully by left-arm medium-pacer S Arvind, who himself has taken 23 wickets. As prolific as the batsmen have been, it has been the incisiveness of the bowling attack that has helped Karnataka embark on what has thus far been a perfect season -- four outright wins and three first-innings leads in seven matches.

Karnataka may be forced, however, to revisit their bowling combination. Their first game at the Chinnaswamy stadium this season will be on a surface expected to have reasonable pace and carry early on, but that should become progressively slower and lower. Dravid and the think-tank must choose judiciously between Arvind’s form and off-spinner Udit Patel’s utility.

Their 185-run Meerut drubbing notwithstanding, Uttar Pradesh will be no pushovers. Unlike Karnataka, who are in their first semifinal since 2006-07, Kaif’s band has been in three of the last four finals; Uttar Pradesh have personnel with experience of playing the big knockout games, a handicap the young Karnataka batting line-up in particular will have to overcome.

Pandey has been the outstanding batsman of the season with three centuries, all under pressure, but it has been anything but a one-man show. Ganesh Satish and Amit Verma have made their second coming count with two hundreds apiece, while KB Pawan has presented a picture of solidity at the top of the tree.

Most crucially, Robin Uthappa has shown signs of coming into his own as the season reaches its business end, while Dravid’s presence lends class and reassurance, though UP possess a mean bowling attack spearheaded by Praveen Kumar and Rudra Pratap Singh, with leggie Piyush Chawla for company.

Advantage Karnataka, definitely, but overwhelmingly so? Not quite.

Teams (from):
Karnataka: Rahul Dravid (capt), Robin Uthappa, KB Pawan, Ganesh Satish, Manish Pandey, Amit Verma, CM Gautam, Sunil Joshi, R Vinay Kumar, A Mithun, S Arvind, Udit Patel.

Uttar Pradesh: Mohammad Kaif (capt), Tanmay Srivastava, Shivakant Shukla, Rohit Prakash Srivastava, Par-vinder Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pi-yush Chawla, Amir Khan, Praveen Kumar, Praveen Gupta, Rudra Pratap Singh, Shallabh Srivastava, Ashish Yadav, Prashant Gupta, Imtiaz Ahmed, A-li Hamid Zaidi, Eklava Diwadi.

Umpires: K Hariharan and Sanjay Hazare. Match referee: Shakti Sin-gh.
Hours of play: 0930-1200 hours, 1240-1440 hours and 1500-end of play.

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