Their eyes bright with unshed tears staring blankly into the distant nothingness, faces a mélange of disappointment, dismay and despair, Karnataka’s cricketers looked like they could have been knocked over by a feather at Gangotri Glades on Thursday afternoon.
Gradually, with the passage of time, they will look back with pride at having played their part in a classic Ranji Trophy final, though that will come as scant consolation for a team that has shown this season that it is unwilling to settle for second-best.
Indeed, if Karnataka continue to play like they did for the last two and a half months, they will not remain second-best for too long. Fearless and intrepid, ambitious and hungry, they strode the domestic stage like a colossus until running into a tartar in Mumbai in the title clash last week, the narrowest margin of six runs looming as the enormous gulf between domestic champions and vanquished bravehearts.
Their stunning exploits leading up to the title clash and the closeness of the margin will combine to ensure that the disappointment of not laying their hands on the most significant domestic silverware will linger for a while, but there is no reason for a side short on experience to feel anything but proud of what they have accomplished this season.
For nearly a decade now, Karnataka have hardly resembled the champion side that dominated Indian cricket in the mid to late 90s and had as many as seven representatives at one stage in the national team. While it will be a little premature to comprehensively aver that Karnataka have turned the corner, their exploits of the last three months have triggered well-founded optimism that the future is pregnant with glorious possibilities.
Between 1999, when they won the last of their six Ranji titles at the Chinnaswamy stadium, and this year, Karnataka made the semifinals of the tournament just twice – in 2000 and 2007 – but even during those runs, they didn’t exactly inspire confidence. There were odd patches of brilliance, occasional bursts of exceptional individual performances but as a team, it was debatable if everyone was pulling his weight and pulling in the right direction.
The class of 2010 -- and it’s a very, very young class, it must be remembered – was different from its predecessors not merely in the kind of cricket it played, but also for the kind of cricket it played as a team. Most lads were in their first full season, and therefore did not carry the baggage of past disappointments with them. Beautifully handled in the early part of the season by Rahul Dravid, they were given the freedom to express themselves without allowing negative thoughts, of failure and the subsequent axe, to fetter their minds.
In perfect sync
Having played a lot of cricket together at the age-group level, they were also in perfect sync with one another, and that understanding showed in every facet of their game. Most crucially, the team wasn’t singularly dependent on one or two individuals even if, as is inevitable, three men towered above the rest.
It won’t be long before at least two of them, Manish Pandey and Abhimanyu Mithun, represent India at the highest level. The third, R Vinay Kumar, should consider himself distinctly unlucky if he misses the bus, for men with far less impressive credentials than he has have already donned the national colours while he has toiled away season after season with a mountain of wickets under his belt.
It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that Vinay is only 25. A permanent fixture for a while now, the Davanagere lad is the quintessential team man with a never-say-die attitude that is bound to impact the men around him. The readiness and effectiveness with which he has taken Mithun and S Aravind under his wings is reflective of his enormous self-confidence and assurance; it is also the ultimate indication that this is no selfish cricketer with an eye on numbers and records, but a whole-hearted, game battler determined to carry the team with him.
His 46 wickets were outstanding returns given that Karnataka played a fair share of their games on flat tracks; only Mithun of all the bowlers in the country topped that mark as Karnataka swept the individual honours in the season gone by.
Mithun is an out-and-out quick, a strong 20-year-old who will only get stronger and, by logical extension, faster. A dramatic debut in Meerut, including twin five-wicket hauls and a hat-trick, was always going to be hard to top, but as the season unfolded, Mithun got better. Helped along by Vinay’s inputs and blessed with wonderful temperament that has allowed him to keep his feet on the ground despite the huge hype around him, Mithun has already grabbed the eyeballs of the national selectors.
As has another, equally exciting 20-year-old. Pigeonholed as a Twenty20 expert, Pandey showcased his adaptability and versatility with 882 Ranji runs for the season, the most in the country. He also made the most hundreds, four, each one a classic made under not inconsiderable pressure and two of them coming in the knockout stage.
Like Mithun, Pandey hasn’t allowed the adulation to go to his head. There is no strut, no cockiness, just a quiet acceptance of the fact that he is blessed with a special talent, and that it is up to him to make what he will of that talent. His work ethics have impressed the support staff and the State selectors, who themselves should take plenty of pride in having boldly backed youth, and seen their gamble pay off so spectacularly.
The core group is in its 20s, the likes of KB Pawan and Robin Uthappa with a fair few years of cricket behind them. Ganesh Satish, Amit Verma, CM Gautam and Aravind have done more than enough to suggest that they are here for the long haul, but Karnataka’s quest for a quality spinner to fill the breach as and when Sunil Joshi calls it a day continues.
A majority of the ingredients are in place, the trappings of a champion side all too apparent, but cricket can be unforgiving when anything is taken for granted, so the young men must guard against resting on their laurels.