At the end of a 20-minute hit, Manish Pandey walked out of the nets, whipped off his helmet and busied himself with unstrapping his pads. As he was about to dispense with his leg-guard, J Arun Kumar, Karnataka’s batting coach, fired off a couple of instructions in rapid-fire Kannada.
Pandey made haste in putting his pads back on and walked to an empty net. With four fielders crowded-in close, the right-hander was served a barrage of point-blank throw-downs, with his brief seemingly centered on keeping the ball down.
A few Maharashtra players, who moments earlier were busy lugging their kit-bags into the practice area of the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, stopped and scrutinised Pandey’s batting drill. 15 minutes later, the Maharashtra batsmen were made to replicate the drill, perhaps taking a leaf out of their storied opponent’s book.
Later, with almost half the questions in a brief media interaction with both teams being about the wicket’s spin-friendly nature, the drill’s utility seemed to have been revealed. The other half dwelled on Maharashtra’s ability to take the pressure of a final.
Karnataka and Maharashtra will lock horns in the final of the 2013-14 season from Wednesday. Both teams are unbeaten and seem to have a lot in common, apart from one factor – big match experience.
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While Maharashtra are in the final after 21 years, Karnataka have won the Ranji Trophy thrice in the last two decades along with a runners-up finish in 2009-10. However, those three championships were won with Karnataka’s golden generation; the likes of Dravid, Kumble, Srinath and Prasad all combining fluently in the course of victory.
Teams in transition
Over the last few years though, Karnataka have been in transition as have Maharashtra, whose last title came in the 1941-42 season. But even though both sides have undergone revamps, Karnataka seem to hold the edge.
While both teams have followed similar policies of blooding young talent, Karnataka have ensured that their performance has not really dipped. They have made the knock-out rounds over the last five seasons. They, in fact, had almost won the title in 2009-10, falling six agonising runs short against Mumbai in the title clash at Mysore.
In comparison, Maharashtra with their youthful bunch, have made the knock-outs only twice during the same time-frame. With eight players who played the 2009-10 final in the current 15-member squad, the team understands the pulls and pressures of a summit clash, a point Karnataka skipper Vinay Kumar stressed on.
“Maharashtra is a good young team. However, we have been here before. We know the kind of pressure that comes up at certain moments and that is a plus-point,” Vinay said.
The pacer also went on to say that whoever won the toss would have an upper hand.
Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave said that if his team felt the pressure of a final, it was a good sign.
“We are giving this final due importance. It is good to feel the pressure, but I think my players are treating this match as an opportunity rather than as a challenge. That will help us manage the pressure and I am confident of my team,” he said.
While inconsistency and big-match temperament have been Maharashtra’s main worry over the past few years, the side has got its act together this season. Maharashtra’s batting, apart from Kedar Jadhav’s glorious form, has been bolstered by four of their batsmen, who will play on Wednesday, having piled up more than 500 runs this season. Karnataka too are sitting pretty with most of their top-order in great nick. KL Rahul with 873 runs from 15 innings leads the charts and has been ably supported by Karun Nair’s 430 runs in eight innings along with Manish Pandey’s 665 runs in fifteen innings.
The bowling departments are also well stocked. Karnataka’s pace battery comprising of Vinay Kumar, HS Sharath, Abhimanyu Mithun and Ronit More have utilised the new ball in clinical fashion, often giving their side early breakthroughs. Sharath though, will miss the final with a shoulder injury. Mithun, with 36 scalps in nine matches, is expected to spearhead Karnataka’s new ball challenge.
Maharashtra blew away Bengal in the semi-final at Indore with a potent combination of accuracy and swing. Two of their pacers, Samad Fallah and Shrikant Mundhe, have 31 and 30 wickets apiece this season. The left-arm spin of Akshay Darekar, which has fetched the 25-year-old 32 wickets this season, will also be another of Maharashtra’s trump cards on a wicket where spin is expected to play a major role.
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