Until the skies cracked open for the umpteenth occasion on Wednesday, this time for a post-noon drizzle, the players were kept waiting under the awning of the PCA Pavilion. Shivering under their umbrellas and staring hopelessly at the blue rexine plasters all over the ground, the umpires finally decided to call off the fifth and final day of this semifinal match, without a ball being bowled.
In the process, the match had ended and so had Punjab’s misery. Karnataka, based on their large first-innings lead, had made it to their second Ranji Trophy final in four years. The truth, however, is that Karnataka had sealed that spot long before 12:35 pm on Wednesday. In a severely weather-affected game, they had gone past Punjab’s first innings score of 270 on Monday afternoon itself.
But if Robin Uthappa is to be believed, then Karnataka had ‘one hand around the trophy’ long before even this semifinal week began. “With the way we’ve been playing and the incredible confidence shown by each of our guys on the cricket field all season long, this edition is indeed ours to lose,” gushes Uthappa. “Now all we have to do is keep this momentum flowing and wrap that other palm around the silverware.”
His confidence isn’t misplaced. Such has been the ferocity of Karnataka’s 2013-14 campaign.
Since the end of November and all the way until the start of this match, Karnataka had won six straight matches. The streak could and should ideally have stretched into a seventh – a win that would have tied the Ranji record – had the elements not come into the equation here in Mohali.
“The breaking of the streak is fine,” says Uthappa. “We just need to win the one that matters.”
Indeed. Notice how Uthappa uses the word ‘need’ rather than ‘want’. In his decade-long first-class career, the former India batsman has seen just one final – the epic one against Mumbai in Mysore back in 2010. Back then he was captain and excruciatingly, Karnataka fell short of the target by six runs. But for a man who made his debut in 2002, shortly after his state’s glory years of the late 90s, his undying will to recreate a truly dominant Karnataka side saw him through.
“It was a difficult phase to be a part of. Losing that final was incredibly hard. But then to get to all those knock-out stages in the following few years and not proceed further was just as bad,” he says. “But now, after the transitional period, we’ve finally put together a side that deserves to be called champions.”
End of transition?
The transitional phase in question began long before Rahul Dravid, the last of the state’s greats, retired ahead of the 2012-13 season. “It was in fact as far back as the 2008-09 edition that this process of change began,” Uthappa clarifies. “In that season, we saw as many as six batsmen making their debuts. Yet, we made it as far as the quarterfinals. This gave us a strong indication that we were moving in the right direction.”
That direction, however, progressed harmonically. In 2009-10, Karnataka made the final. In 2010-11, the semis. And in 2011-12 and 2012-13, the quarters.
“It was very frustrating. In each of these seasons, either our batting would click or our bowling would. They never managed to occur together,” says Uthappa. “That’s one of the major reasons behind our success this year. Everything and everyone is firing in unison. And we’re bloody glad about it.”
True. Karnataka’s batters have scored 13 centuries this season, one more than their opponents in the final, Maharashtra, and plenty more than the others.
But unlike Maharashtra, for whom Kedar Jadhav had single-handedly added five triple-digit scores, the centuries in this line-up are well distributed through the batting order.
Karun Nair and Manish Pandey have three each, Lokesh Rahul has two (and three nineties) while Uthappa, Stuart Binny, Amit Verma, CM Gautam and Vinay Kumar have all struck one.
Ditto, with their bowling. Seven Karnataka bowlers have taken 10 wickets or more in this campaign. Three have more than 20. And two, Abhimanyu Mithun and young HS Sharath, above 30. “The real beauty of this has been the kids who have come in and instantly stepped it up. Karun is playing his first Ranji season and has already notched three centuries. Sharath is 20 years old, he has 32 wickets,” says Uthappa.
“The great thing is, we’re very, very, very happy for each other’s success. I know it sounds like a cliche, but we celebrate everyone’s highs like our own. And that feeling of joy is contagious.”
Contagious enough for Uthappa, who missed half a dozen matches this season due to injury, to push himself to return in time for the knock-outs.
“I found it rather difficult that I wasn’t playing or contributing to the team’s success. I mean I was extremely happy for us and Karanataka, but I wanted to join the party,” he says. “So when I got that century in trying conditions against UP, it was extremely gratifying. I truly enjoyed my beer with the boys after we won.”
If everything does go according to plan and expectation, then the celebratory drink won’t be beer for much longer. For the proverbial champagne has already been put on ice.