Ready for long road

Ready for long road

Cricket : Giants of the domestic game, Karnataka look well-prepared to defend their Ranji Trophy crown again

Ready for long road

They say it’s one thing to reach the top but quite another to remain there. Karnataka have managed to stay at the pinnacle of domestic cricket for the last couple of years, winning three titles – Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Irani Cup -- in two successive years.

It’s an unprecedented feat in the history of Indian cricket but will they be able to maintain their stranglehold this season which gets under way from October 1 with their first Ranji match against Assam in Guwahati?

For one, the R Vinay Kumar-led side could be without many of their star players who played crucial roles at various stages of their campaigns in the last two seasons. This predicament is again an off-shoot of their performances that have earned a handful of their players places in various India squads. While it’s a matter of pride that many from the State’s stable have managed to break into national squads (Senior and A teams), the challenge before them will be to regroup with reinforcements.

In that sense, the three-day match against Bangladesh ‘A’ in Mysuru couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It provided the selectors and the team management a chance to gauge the talent pool in the State. That they managed to beat a strong Bangla side, which had several internationals in their ranks, inside three days would have given them a world of confidence. Wiry paceman Prasidh Krishna, all of 19, showed all signs of continuing Karnataka’s penchant for producing quality fast bowlers with a five-wicket haul on his first-class debut while the 20-year-old left-arm spinner J Suchith, who was also making his first-class debut, underlined his credentials with a six-for to set up a four-wicket win over Bangla.

“More or less, the finds from the match against Bangladesh were Prasidh and Suchith,” pointed out Karnataka’s batting coach J Arun Kumar.

“Prasidh’s patience for someone so young was heartening for us to see. That’s his biggest asset and in the absence of Arvind and Stuart Binny, he can be really handy for us. As for Suchith, we knew he is a quality left-arm spinner,” said Arun.

With Vinay and A Mithun available from the opening match itself, the bowling department appears to be in the safe hands despite the absence of Arvind — who was their second highest wicket-taker behind Vinay last season — at least for the first two matches. Leg-spinning all-rounder Shreyas Gopal has shown steady rise while paceman HS Sharath will be eager to get an extended run that has eluded him since his debut.

Binny would have made a big difference but Karnataka have become used to playing without the all-rounder, who has been a regular in the Indian senior side for close to two years now. Karnataka, however, may miss some of their star batsmen at various stages of this season though the international schedule is kind enough for them to have their first-choice players for most part of the league phase between October 1 and December 4.

K L Rahul, who struck a maiden triple century by a Karnataka batsman last season right after returning from his Test debut in Australia, will not be available for at least the first two matches as he has not been cleared by the National Cricket Academy physio Andrew Leipus.

Rahul had strained his quadriceps during the Sri Lanka series. There is a good chance of Manish Pandey or Karun Nair being picked for the last two ODIs if the situation demands. Karnataka, however, appear equipped to handle any such eventuality.

Opener R Samarth was the fifth highest run-getter (625) for the State at an impressive average of 52.08. Shreyas took his batting to the next level with a whopping 663 runs (55.25) while wicketkeeper-batsman CM Gautam will be keen to regain his prolific ways. It remains to be seen if Mayank Agarwal carries on his one-day from into the longer version.

“From a batting point of view, Shishir Bhavane’s innings of 88 against Bangla was very significant,” Arun noted. “He showed the right temperament while going about his task. He was willing to bat for long and with him being a left-handed batsman, it will be crucial for us. A left-handed batsman in the middle-order makes a lot of difference, especially while handling left-arm spinners who look to exploit the rough,” he reasoned.

The reality that the team is likely to miss some of the key players at some stage or the other wasn’t lost on Arun but he believed the bench strength will put its hand up and be counted. “Everyone has set certain standards, because they know that there is a good chance of playing for India,” said Arun, talking about Karnataka reserves.

“Even HS Sharath, if not for his injury, he would have been the first in line to play for India. These guys have realised that it possible to play for the country. They've seen guys like Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and others play for the country, so they are all charged up,” he remarked.

As someone in-charge of a champion side and having been part of a side as player of multiple Ranji title winning team, Arun knows a thing or two about letting ones guard down. “Complacency,” he said when asked about what he wanted his side to guard against. “But I don’t think that will happen because these guys know the value of playing for the country. But at the same time, it’s important you enjoy each other’s success as a team which we are doing. If that remains we will be unbeatable for a few years,” he noted.

Another advantage for the reigning Ranji champions is the fact that they will be playing five of their eight league matches at home. This not only cuts down their travel time, which can be gruelling given that there is only a gap of three to four days between matches, but also allows them to make most of the familiar conditions.

Ranji Trophy factfile

This year's Ranji Trophy has been divided into two distinct segments, with a big gap separating the group phase and knockout phase.

The group phase will be from October 1 to December 4 before the knockouts resume from February 3 with quarterfinals.

In the intervening period, the domestic limited overs tournaments will be completed.
The Vijay Hazare Trophy (one-day tourney) will be held from Dec 10-23.
The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (T20 competition) group phase will be held between January 2 and 10.

Ranji Trophy groupings:

Group A: Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Assam, Bengal, Haryana, Vidarbha, Delhi, Karnataka.

Group B: Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Mumbai, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Baroda, Railways, Andhra.

Group C: Jharkhand, Saurashtra, Hyderabad, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Services, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir.

Three teams each from Group A and B and two teams from Group C qualify for knockout quarterfinals.

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