Tough season ahead

Ranji Trophy

LOTS OF THINKING TO DO: Karnataka captain R Vinay Kumar (centre) and coach and assistant coach duo of Yere Goud (left) and S Arvind know their task this season is going to be a difficult one. DH Photo/ Srikanta Sharma R

When former captain Yere Goud and the just-retired pacer S Arvind were handed the reins of the Karnataka cricket team at the start of the domestic season, they may have elicited some surprise. The team, which had veered off track following the unprecedented highs of 2013-14 and 2014-15 when they were invincible, appeared to be finding its winning ways under PV Shashikant and GK Anil Kumar.

Karnataka lost narrowly to eventual champions Vidarbha in the semifinals of the Ranji Trophy last season but triumphed in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the South Zone T20 Championship. The team looked hungry for success. For reasons best known to the powers in the KSCA, Shashikant and Anil were axed after one year in the job.

Goud, the chief coach, and his assistant and surprise appointment Arvind may have hoped to silence the murmurs by getting off the blocks in blazing fashion in the Vijay Hazare Trophy but they ended up getting a hard foretaste of the task staring at them as Karnataka made a false start to the season. Having missed key batsmen for half of the group campaign and partly undone by the wet weather, Karnataka failed to make the cut for the knockouts.

While it’s just one tournament and it’s not fair to judge Goud and Arvind based on that sample, the two know their job is just going to get more tougher when Karnataka kick-start their Ranji Trophy campaign against defending champions Vidarbha on November 12 at Nagpur. Their biggest challenge, which has been hitting Karnataka hard over the last few years, would be to find suitable replacements for star players, many of whom would be busy with national commitments until mid December.

Following the conclusion of the T20I series against the West Indies, the Indians fly off to Australia for a full tour while the ‘A’ team will travel to New Zealand (Nov 16-Dec 11) for three unofficial Tests and an equal number of ODIs.

KL Rahul and Manish Pandey look certain to miss the entire season while last season’s highest run-getter Mayank Agarwal (1160 runs), part of the India A team, will be out for at least the first five group games. Talented young batsman R Samarth and seasoned Karun Nair are also part of the India A squad, as is off-spinning all-rounder K Gowtham. While Karnataka may not miss Rahul so much as they have gotten used to not having him, the absence of Agarwal and Samarth will have a telling impact.

Last season, both were instrumental in helping Karnataka post strong totals; Agarwal amassing five hundreds in a spell-binding season and Samarth leaving his own mark with three hundreds. Worryingly for Karnataka, who are pitted in a tough group, they run into stronger rivals early on itself.

After Vidarbha, heavyweights Mumbai come calling followed by Maharashtra, Saurashtra and Gujarat. Just how the eight-time champions cope with the challenge without their key performers will define their season.

Having said that, this is a great chance for the next crop of batsmen to make an impression. Unlike previous seasons when star players walked in and walked out almost every other game, this time their absence is confirmed for nearly half the group campaign. This provides an ample opportunity for the youngsters to showcase their skills and ignite their careers.

“Karnataka has no dearth of talent and this is a great chance for the young kids to take the next step,” felt J Arun Kumar who coached the side that triumphed in 2013-14 and 2014-15. “Guys like Rahul, Manish, Karun and Mayank grabbed them when they broke into the side and I don’t see why guys like D Nischith and Devdutt Padikal — to mention a couple of them — can’t. Unlike the past when guys like Kunal Kapoor just got one or two games to prove their mettle, this time youngsters have at least 4-5 games to showcase their talent. The fear of making way for a star won’t be there. Considering most of the big guys will be away for a while, no one is expecting anything major and the situation is ideal.

“My advice for them would be to play without the fear of failure. They have nothing to lose and all to gain. They should not be put under too much pressure but be given the licence to express themselves. They should not treat Ranji Trophy as Ranji Trophy but just think about it as a platform to graduate to the next level. That’s what guys like KL, Manish and Karun did and today they are immensely successful. The goal should be to get runs and not survive. The management should also back the players, no matter what happens. Once the player has the confidence of the management, he’ll flourish automatically,” added Arun Kumar.

Karnataka also face question marks in the bowling department. Seasoned pacer R Vinay Kumar will lead the attack but at 34 years of age, it will be difficult for him to go full tilt entire season which has been stretched thanks to the addition of several new teams. Abhimanyu Mithun, 29, has to step up and deliver consistently while young pacers Prasidh Krishna and T Pradeep have a great chance to take over as the next pair. Young MG Naveen has promise and he’ll be looking to make the most of his chances. With Gowtham missing, Shreyas Gopal takes over as the lead spinner and the leggie has it in him to deliver.

Karnataka, with a fresh set of coaches and players, face a challenging ride — and a long one at that. Just how well they handle the pressure of expectations and make the opportunity count will have a say in their fortunes.

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