Karnataka’s bid to reclaim the Ranji Trophy title has begun promisingly with their first win of the season coming against Delhi in Kolkata © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Fourteen years ago, Robin Uthappa, a teenage batsman who came with the reputation of being Karnataka’s batting future, replaced J Arunkumar in the state side before the start of the domestic season. Arunkumar, a senior player and part of Ranji Trophy-winning sides in 1995-96, 1997-98 and 1998-99, was aggrieved and turned professional, playing for Assam and Goa before retiring in 2008. Four years later, when he took on a coaching role with Karnataka, Arunkumar found himself in the same position as the selectors were in 2002-03, having to take the “brave call” of dropping seniors.
This decision, Arunkumar believes, has led to the renaissance of Karnataka cricket, taking them from an ‘almost there’ side to back-to-back Ranji Trophy titles in 2013-14 and 2014-15. It is a process he is prepared to stick to as Karnataka look to reclaim the title they lost in 2015-16. They have begun promisingly this season, with a win and a draw from two matches.
“It was tough, but [there were] very conscious decisions to replace senior players like KB Pawan, Ganesh Satish and a few others,” Arunkumar, who is now head coach, told ESPNcricinfo. “That call was a must then because the team management was mindful of the bigger picture. By that I mean, by 26-27 if a cricketer wasn’t playing for India A at least, chances of the national cap were remote. We didn’t want a situation where a player is just happy playing state cricket and then going away. It was a bold decision we took when asked to present a roadmap for the state team, one that has worked wonderfully so far.”
Arunkumar said the decision to part with senior players put tremendous pressure on the youngsters, with some of them scrutinised on a match-by-match basis. When Arunkumar took over as batting coach before the 2012-13 season, KL Rahul was not a regular in the side. Karun Nair, Mayank Agarwal and Shreyas Gopal had not made their first-class debuts. Manish Pandey was far from national reckoning and Uthappa was struggling with form and fitness after being left out of the India team.
Rahul, for example, made his first-class debut in 2010, but was dropped after three matches. It took him two more years to re-establish himself. Nair, too, failed in his first two matches. “There was pressure not to give more chances, but as coach, you have to go by instinct, and I went with my heart,” Arunkumar said. “Even someone like Karun Nair did well in only his third game.
“A lot of times I have seen, and I say it from experience, that some players are slow starters. As a coach you have to give them the confidence. You need to be transparent and straightforward, you can’t be manipulative and get away; you will be sorted otherwise. We were in fact extremely lucky to have a core group in such quick time that the two championship wins brought many of them in national focus.”
J Arunkumar, Karnataka coach
The national focus brought with it new challenges. The price Karnataka have paid for being so successful over the past couple of seasons is that they have lost players to the national or India A teams at various stages. While it is a matter of pride, Arunkumar said the challenge lay in handling fame and remaining grounded.
“Luckily we’re in a good position where those who have played for India realise the need to not take things lightly when they return,” Arunkumar said. “That is the challenge for us as coaches to bring out the best in them. There is an inclination to not give 100% sometimes, but we have given everybody ownership and authority to take their decisions, else coaches will be made to look like prison wardens. That’s what we were taught in 1995-96 when we won the Ranji Trophy.”
In 2015-16, Karnataka suffered from the after-effects of another aspect of national-team ambitions. Senior players Uthappa and CM Gautam had a “small misunderstanding” over their roles in the side because of the split wicket-keeping policy that stemmed from Uthappa’s desire to press his case as a keeper-batsman for India, a role he had fulfilled with Kolkata Knight Riders.
“CM probably missed out on an IPL contract because of that, but all that is in the past now,” Arunkumar insisted. “CM lost a bit of credibility because no one saw him as a wicketkeeper, but he did it for the team. Robin himself realised it was affecting team chemistry. So this season we decided to let specialists handle their own jobs.”
With the team set to remain on the road for the next three months, Arunkumar believes bonding between the players will be vital when wins are elusive. “They’re all mostly friends even outside the cricket ground,” he said. “They plan bike rides, movies, treks and outings during the off season. We all regularly meet for dinners during the season too. We’re even allowed to have a couple of beers from time to time to celebrate victories. As a coach, you can’t be imposing and set team rules and curfews. The boys understand where to draw the line, so it’s fine.”
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.