The erstwhile Prince of Wales College is an unusual setting for a Ranji Trophy quarterfinal. By the Geology block, students sip tea on benches, lost in conversation. Over in the 115-year-old main block, with its glorious arcades, young boys sprint to class. On the front lawns, students lie on the grass, poring over their books in the shade of tall pine trees. In a far corner of the 65-acre campus, past the hostel block and the library, Karnataka and Jammu & Kashmir will battle each other from Thursday for a place in the semifinals of the country's premier domestic tournament.
As the two teams trained at the Gandhi Memorial Science College — as it is now known — on match-eve, there was no escaping the presence of security forces. "Too close for comfort," said Karun Nair, as armed police casually stood around the nets. Karnataka had concerns about playing in Jammu and the KSCA had sought to have the fixture moved to Bengaluru but J & K had no intention of losing home advantage.
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Karun Nair's men, though, will still be favourites. This is a strong, well-rounded side, and any concerns over form were swatted aside last week as Karnataka booked its spot in the last-eight in emphatic fashion, crushing Baroda in three days. Karun, who had hitherto struggled for runs, made 47 in the first innings and then marshaled the run chase with an unbeaten 71.
Manish Pandey's arrival is a boost. The batsman rejoined the side after a decent outing with the Indian team in New Zealand and will slip into the middle-order straight away. It remains to be seen who makes way for Pandey. Pavan Deshpande would seem the likely candidate but Shreyas Gopal has been poor this season. The all-rounder could sit out if the team management feels Deshpande's off-breaks are reliable.
Karnataka has its full pace-bowling attack of Prasidh Krishna, Ronit More and Abhimanyu Mithun available, with the left-arm pace of Prateek Jain an added option.
J & K, though, will be no pushover. Parvez Rasool's men finished on top of Group C with six outright wins, advancing to the quarterfinals for only the second time in the state's history. This is a young team: six of the 11 that featured in the previous game, against Haryana, had played fewer than 10 first-class matches. The 18-year-old middle-order batsman Abdul Samad is an exciting prospect: he is the team's top-scorer this season, with 547 runs at a strike rate of 116. He has smashed 35 sixes so far this season; it is no surprise he was snapped up by SRH in the IPL.
With Irfan Pathan's mentorship and the administrative changes that have taken place over the last year or so, J & K has found a renewed zeal. Karnataka will do well to be wary.