As recently as 39 days ago, Karun Nair was just another kid with a heavy cricket kit and lightheaded cricketing ambitions. He hadn’t yet played a first-class match. And having turned 22 in the first week of December, Nair knew time was slipping by. “I was desperate to play for Karnataka. But dreams don’t stop there,” he says, a bit shy, a bit sure. “I imagined all kind of things, scoring runs and proving my worth, maybe even hitting a century. And I always, always, wanted to play in a Ranji final.”
In precisely that order and in the space of just a month — not more, not less — those dreams began materialising. First came the debut, in place of an injured Robin Uthappa during the group stages. In the middle of December, opener Nair got his chance to represent Karnataka as a number six batsman against Punjab in Hubli.
By the time he played Punjab again, in just his fifth Ranji game during the ongoing semifinals here in Mohali, he had scored three top-order centuries on the trot — the third of which has all but booked his side a place in the final. For the first time in four years.
On Tuesday, the fourth day of this severely weather-affected game (the first day was rained out and today saw just 36 overs being bowled due to poor light), Nair stretched his overnight score from 107 to 151*, his highest first-class score.
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But despite batting for a better part of two days and gaining a 177-run first innings lead over Punjab, Nair claims that neither he nor Karnataka are done yet. “Weather permitting, our aim is to bat out the fifth day. And hopefully by the end of it, I will know what it feels like to score a double hundred,” he says.
Imagine that, a double hundred for a boy who is yet to settle for a fifty in his just-starting-but-already-flourishing Ranji career. “It is hard to believe, I know. But when you’re not getting runs, you realise just how valuable these hundreds are. So I refuse to take it easy after scoring a 50,” Nair says. But having played just eight innings and already having scored three centuries, when did he ever have the time to go through a lean patch? He listens to the query and delivers his life story.
“Until I turned 19, I hadn’t once converted a start to three figures in any level of age-group cricket. No hundreds, but plenty of fifties, sixties and seventies. In fact, when I was 14, I scored some six seventies on the go,” reveals Nair. Then he pauses and adds: “At 15, I got into the Under-19 team, Here also, I went through four years of no centuries. Everybody else I batted with usually scored one within their first couple of matches, but I couldn’t. That frustrated me a lot.”
The cure, he says, was found by just focusing harder. “It’s all mental when it comes to batting. So I ensured that once I cross 50, I keep telling myself to be more alert, watch balls more closely, simple things like that,” Nair says. “I’m glad that this determination worked best when I needed it most, in my maiden Ranji season.”
His determination for a hundred, incidentally, also happened to work best when Karnataka needed it most, against Uttar Pradesh in the quarterfinals earlier this month. To get to the knock-outs, Karnataka had won five consecutive matches in the group stages. But it all looked to go in vain when they found themselves tattered at 15/3, minutes after being put in to bat. “When I walked in, it was the hat-trick ball,” he says.
Indeed. Amit Mishra (not to be confused with the Haryana leggie) had just dismissed Karnataka’s top two run-getters this season, Lokesh Rahul and Manish Pandey, for ducks. He adds: “So to get through that and score a century was easily the most challenging. And satisfying. But I knew I could do it, having scored my maiden ton in the previous game against Delhi.”
That knock of 105 at the Ferozeshah Kotla was also the only three-digit score in the low-scoring game. Just as this hundred would have been, until Amit Verma joined him there on this truncated day of cricket. “It’s great that all of us have found form just before the Trophy final. We always had the team to win it but now everything is falling in place at the right time.”
Few players have scored four consecutive centuries in the history of the Ranji. And if Nair is to achieve this extraordinary feat, it will be on the grandest domestic stage — in the trophy game. “I don’t want to think too far ahead, it is hard to believe,” he says. “But again, if you would have told me just last month that I would do all this and will be playing in a Ranji final, I wouldn’t have believed that either.”
Brief scores: Punjab 270 vs Karnataka 447/5 in 146.1 overs (K Nair 151 batting, A Verma 114 batting, H Singh 2/98)