Delightful treble

The Karnataka team with the Ranji Trophy.-K. RAMESH BABU

The Ranji Trophy, the Irani Cup and the Vijay Hazare Trophy have all been won while a hoary legacy was respected and a winning tradition got extended much to the delight of Karnataka’s cricketing fraternity. By K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

A sense of history permeates the air around Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. Just five minutes away is the Anil Kumble Circle, that was named after one of India’s greatest bowlers following his ‘Perfect 10’ against Pakistan in 1999. Walk in through the main-gate and on the left, you will see a commemorative wall in honour of Rahul Dravid. The legendary batsman’s runs and tons are etched there for posterity.

Stare at the venue’s edifice and you will see murals of the State’s greatest cricketers — G. R. Viswanath, B. S. Chandrasekhar, E. A. S. Prasanna, Syed Kirmani, Roger Binny, Brijesh Patel, Kumble, Dravid, Javagal Srinath and many more including the current star Robin Uthappa.

Truly, after Mumbai, Karnataka has the highest pedigree in Indian cricket. There was a time in the mid-1990s, when half the Indian team was made up of players from this State usually famous for coffee and sandalwood. However, over the years, a few questions vexed the game’s followers in places ranging from Hubli to Kolar. The queries centred on an inability to win the Ranji Trophy besides the dwindling number of Karnataka players in the National colours.

Thankfully for the fans, 2013-14 has turned out to be a season of glad tidings. The cyclical nature of sport; the fine amalgamation of talent, hope and perseverance; and the fierce desire to assuage the bitter memories of losing a Ranji Trophy final to Mumbai by six runs in Mysore in 2010, all wonderfully combined to gift multiple peaks that were emphatically scaled by R. Vinay Kumar’s men.

The Ranji Trophy, the Irani Cup and the Vijay Hazare Trophy have all been won while a hoary legacy was respected and a winning tradition got extended much to the delight of the State’s cricketing fraternity.

Karnataka previously won the Ranji Trophy in the 1998-99 season and Raghunath Beerala, who was the coach then, pointed out that the current squad much like the earlier champion sides, was a happy unit. Two players from his team — J. Arunkumar and Mansur Ali Khan — handle the coaching reins now and the duo ensured that the team had a sense of responsibility that was allied with the sheer joy of enjoying the game. Plus, it helped that Karnataka found a nice blend of hardy campaigners, keen to forget Mysore-2010, and fresh talent, itching to make a mark.

The coaching staff was a picture of contrast. Batting coach Arunkumar, an aggressive opener in his halcyon years, loves his Harley Davidson, flaunts a few tattoos and is a deep thinker of the game. Mansur, persevering fast bowler in his prime, is soft-spoken, tends to avoid the spotlight while keeping a sharp eye on the bowling group. Together, the old room-mates struck a fine tandem and helped captain Vinay to stay focussed on the field.

Confidence was infused into the team during the pre-season training. “At the start of the season, while we were looking at under-25 players I did look at talent but I also wanted these players to have the necessary confidence.

Bowling coach Mansur Ali Khan and batting coach Arun Kumar have done wonders for Karnataka.-K.BHAGYA PRAKASH

“I didn’t want players to step in and while facing Harbhajan Singh, think, ‘oh my god, I am playing against Harbhajan.’ I wanted the players to play their natural styles,” Arunkumar recalled. Mansur meanwhile worked on the bowlers. “In the pre-season training, I told the bowlers to pitch it 10 feet from the batting crease and make the batsman play. (Abhimanyu) Mithun is an in-swing bowler and I told him to bowl four deliveries of in-swing and do a variation for the fifth — it could be a yorker, a bouncer, an away-swinger. I told him and the other fast bowlers to use the bouncer as a surprise weapon. I also used a speed-gun at training and that added value,” Mansur explained.

There is only so much that the coaches could do and eventually it is the players, who had to deliver and that they did superbly. In the victorious Ranji campaign, batting heroes were aplenty with K. L. Rahul (1033 runs) leading the charts while Karun Nair, Uthappa, Manish Pandey, Amit Verma and Ganesh Satish, made vital contributions. Similiarly, the bowlers equally flourished and if the State nailed seven outright victories, credit has to be given to Mithun (41 wickets), H.S. Sharath, Vinay, S. Arvind and debutant leg-spinner Shreyas Gopal.

True to its multi-cultural nature, Karnataka’s players hailed from both cities and tier-three towns like Mandya (Sharath). They spoke a medley of languages that included Kannada, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kodava and English. Cricket unified and through the game, men as diverse as Vinay and Karun, found common ground to back-slap and gratefully accept victory’s feel-good vibes.

In winning its seventh Ranji title, Karnataka gained a huge shot of self-belief. And ever since Vinay held aloft the Ranji Trophy after his team defeated Maharashtra in the final that concluded in Hyderabad on February 2, the resultant surge in confidence had a domino effect.

Next up was the historic Irani Cup. In the game played at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, pitted against a Rest of India squad led by Harbhajan Singh and an outfit that also had Gautam Gambhir in its ranks, Karnataka emerged victorious by an innings and 222 runs. The knife was twisted in by 20-year old Shreyas, who bagged five wickets in the second innings, inclusive of a final flourish: a hat-trick.

The champagne could still wait as Karnataka had more on its plate. It was time to focus on limited overs cricket and fittingly, a treble was pocketed.

The Vijay Hazare Trophy, the highest domestic title for one-dayers in India, was also secured. In a gripping final at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, Karnataka defeated Railways by four wickets with Karun (53 n.o.) and Mithun (four for 19) being the star-turn. The lone blip though was the loss against Tamil Nadu in the zonal rounds. The squad had finally shed its tentativeness acquired over a period of transition when the Dravids and the Sunil Joshis passed the baton over. Hold on, there is one more title that beckons: the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for the All-India Twenty20 championship. “Anything can happen in limited overs cricket but we are confident,” said Vinay. “Now, we are expected to win everything,” Arunkumar pointed out. Surely, it is a nice spot to be in.

* * * STAR PERFORMERS K. L. Rahul

AKHILESH KUMAR

It has been a dream-phase for K. L. Rahul. Last year, he prospered for India Under-23 and played a critical part in the team’s triumph in the Asian Cricket Council’s Emerging Players Cup in Singapore with scores of 46, 88, 51, 43 and an unbeaten 93 against Pakistan in the final. Back then, the opener said: “Now the ball looks good to me. I just want to continue the flow.” The words turned prophetic as he notched 1033 runs during Karnataka’s epochal Ranji campaign. The 21-year-old, plays his shots and if required, can also don the wicket-keeping gloves. He is a player for the future.

Karun Nair

AKHILESH KUMAR

A few years ago, Karnataka’s former player Fazal Khaleel, was asked to name two players to watch out for on the Bangalore maidans. “Karun Nair and Shreyas Gopal,” he promptly said. Now busy as a State selector, Fazal can look back at those words with pride. Karun had a remarkable season, often stepping in and adding clout to the middle-order. The 22-year-old scored 494 runs with three tons in the Ranji season, topped it up with a 92 in the Irani Cup and hammered a 120 against Gujarat in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Karnataka couldn’t have asked for more from this talented lad.

H.S. Sharath

The democratic spread of cricket in Karnataka, was first made evident by Javagal Srinath’s strides from Mysore and Sunil Joshi’s success story from Gadag. Later, R. Vinay Kumar added to that lore by emerging from Davangere. Now seamer H. S. Sharath has done Mandya proud. The speedster grabbed 32 wickets in the Ranji season before a shoulder injury forced him to the sidelines in the home-stretch. Until then, the 20-year-old was threatening to emerge as the State’s highest wicket-taker in an unforgettable run towards the victor’s podium. Sharath has blended well with a seam attack that has Vinay and Abhimanyu Mithun in its ranks.

Shreyas Gopal

Adolescence does strange things to individuals. It did to Shreyas Gopal, who as a rookie, used to sleep in a bedroom plastered with posters of Rahul Dravid. The then promising batsman in school cricket, added another dimension while coping with acne and facial hair: he also dabbled in leg-spin. The results have been spectacular and the 20-year-old excelled more as a bowler in his debut season with Karnataka. He grabbed 22 Ranji wickets and rode a wave while scything through Rest of India with a five-for in the Irani Cup. He can bat too and that is an added delight for his technique-obsessed club cricketer father Gopal Ramaswamy.