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By Suresh Menon
Four decades ago, Karnataka ended Mumbai’s reign in the Ranji Trophy. Mumbai had won the title 15 years in a row, and Karnataka (who went on to win the championship beating Rajasthan in the final that year) opened up the Ranji Trophy showing other teams how it could be done. Since then, Delhi have won seven times, Karnataka themselves another five times, and teams like Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Haryana, Punjab, Baroda, Railways, UP and Rajasthan have all won. Mumbai continue to dominate – they have won 16 times since – but Karnataka’s first triumph was one of the most significant in Indian cricket.
It is now a decade and a half since Karnataka have won, but this could well be their year. By beating UP in the quarterfinals, they became the first team in the national championship to win six matches in a row in the same season. They are up against Punjab in the semifinal in Mohali, where the hosts must fancy their chances. If they cross that hurdle, the final might be played in Bangalore since there might be problems with the original venue, Hyderabad thanks to the political situation there. But all that is in the realm of speculation.
A whole generation of players has passed through the portals of Karnataka cricket since they last won the championship. Continuity is provided two of the heroes of that final against Madhya Pradesh: Dodda Ganesh, now a selector, and then the fast bowler who claimed five in an innings, and Arun Kumar, who made a century, and is the batting coach of the current side.
In recent years, Karnataka have discovered a fine bunch of medium pacers. H S Sharath, who played a lead role in victories over Mumbai and Delhi will miss the semifinal with an injury. But internationals Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun apart, there is Ronit More and S Arvind. Young leg spinner Shreyas Gopal who impressed on his debut against Mumbai and then claimed five second wicket innings to send UP crashing, provides not merely rest for the fast men but genuine wicket-taking skill. In some ways Shreyas has been an important discovery for Karnataka, the state where two great leggies plied their trade: Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble. For he was inducted into the team as a batsman following big centuries at the junior level.
Beating Mumbai outright for the first time meant that this team had gone one-up over the side that first got past Mumbai when Prasanna and Chandrasekhar picked up the wickets while Gundappa Vishwanath and Brijesh made the runs. Karnataka advanced on first innings lead.
Fifteen years is a long time for a team as talented as Karnataka, six times winners, to remain also-rans. After Mumbai’s 40 wins, Delhi’s seven is the next best.
For Karnataka, the return of Robin Uthappa at the top of the order has meant both solidity and flair. Who between K L Rahul and Manish Pandey will be the next big batsman from the state has been the basis of discussion for a while now. Winning the Ranji Trophy is not just about adding a replica of the trophy to the cupboard. It is about more opportunities for those who perform, longer exposure to the consistent players and a chance to seal a place in the national side which is in transition following the retirement of the ‘golden age’ stalwarts.
In the finest traditions of teams climbing the ladder of success, popular stories of the players have already caught the public imagination. There has been none more romantic than that of Sharath, son of a farmer in Hosagavi, some 25 kilometers from Mandya whose ambition was to represent India in kabaddi. He began playing barely four years ago, and he would practice till so late that he missed his bus home. He walked halfway everyday and his father then picked him up in a two-wheeler to drive him home the remaining 12 kilometres or so. Skipper Vinay Kumar is from Davangere, and his team is a reflection of the national team where the players have emerged not all from the big cities and traditional centres.
Karnataka, led by Vinay Kumar, and in his absence by the wicketkeeper C M Gautam have played positive cricket through the season going for victories rather than merely the first innings lead which has rendered the last segment of many matches irrelevant in domestic cricket.
Those who understand the dangers of counting chickens before they are hatched speak of taking things one step at a time. But Karnataka have waited long enough.