Manish Pandey summed up what went Karnataka’s way in the thrilling Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final over Tamil Nadu on Sunday night. Pandey couldn’t have been more right – Tamil Nadu punched above their weight, but Karnataka were the best team through the competition.
In fact, Karnataka have been the best domestic side across competitions and formats for the last few years. The trophy cabinet at KSCA stands as a testament; Karnataka have won 10 trophies across formats in the last five seasons. It includes two trebles (Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy and Irani Cup) in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Vijay Hazare trophies of 2017-18 and 2019-20 and the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophies of 2018-19 and 2019-20.
It wouldn’t be too wrong to say Karnataka are the powerhouse of domestic cricket in India; Mumbai dominated in earlier years, but Karnataka’s consistency in an era where cricket has spread across the country, and when more states are lifting their competence levels, is incredible.
The victories are a result of everything coming together: a state with great cricket legacy and infrastructure at every level. The facilities in Bangalore in particular are second to none; not many associations can boast of having multiple grounds like the ones in Alur (three of them), Just Cricket Academy, apart from the M Chinnaswamy stadium. Needless to say, Bangalore also hosts the National Cricket Academy.
For all its recent issues, there’s the Karnataka Premier League too, helping take the sport to other parts of the state. It’s probably worth noting that the finalists of the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy this year – Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – have their own T20 leagues.
Add to this the cricketing culture and rich history of producing stalwarts, and it’s no surprise that Karnataka are where they are.
This season has seen Karnataka extend that legacy, especially through their batting. At their strongest, like in the final, Karnataka boast of a batting line up with internationals in KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair. Add to it an upcoming star in Devdutt Padikkal, and it’s easily the most complete batting unit in Indian domestic cricket. They also have an off-spinning all-rounder in K Gowtham who is knocking on the doors through India A.
For all the big names, it’s Padikkal who has stolen the show. The left-handed opener was the highest run-getter in Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali trophies, amassing over a thousand runs in the season already. With five fifties and a century in the SMA, at a strike rate of 175.75, Padikkal has made heads turn. Many, including coach Mike Hesson, are already looking forward to how he goes in the IPL for RCB next year.
It helped Karnataka that their seniors were available for major parts too. That Karnataka won the title without many hassles in the tournament despite Agarwal playing only a couple of matches says a lot about their depth.
Fortunately they had Rahul. Not a part of the Test squad, Rahul showed his class scoring 313 runs from 8 innings, happy to play second fiddle to his younger partner Padikkal. Rahul has also improved as a wicketkeeper, giving Karnataka the freedom to play an extra batsman or bowler.
The main man though, is captain Pandey. The bridge between the top order and lower order, Pandey has the dual role of carrying the top order’s momentum while ensuring there are no collapses. He did just that in the final – he came in after R Ashwin bagged Rahul and Agarwal in successive balls, and the story could have been very different had Pandey too fallen early. But Pandey showed experience, knowing exactly when and who to attack, while also respecting the situation. His 45-ball 60* was the difference between the sides in a game of small margins.
Pandey’s captaincy was top notch too. It took a bold captain to finish Ronit More’s spell by the 18th over, leaving the inexperienced V Koushik and an off-spinner in Gowtham to bowl the last two. And what about his fielding, which made all the difference in the end?
Apart from the biggies, Karnataka also had Rohan Kadam contributing crucial runs in the middle order, like in the final.
Karnataka’s bowling was not the strongest but they still got the job done. Shreyas Gopal finished second in the wicket takers list with 19 scalps from 12 games at an economy of 6.78, bowling mostly on batsmen friendly conditions. Small phases made big differences; Abhimanyu Mithun’s five wickets in the last over against Haryana in the semifinal that pulled momentum back to Karnataka is an example.Crucially, they had experience in their side to guide through tough phases and overcome relative weakness in the ball.