In different parts of the world, playing at different levels, three batsmen from Karnataka were putting the bowlers to sword.
One was hammering away the West Indies bowlers in the Caribbean Islands in international cricket, the second one, playing a rung below, was showing his class against the Australia A and South Africa A bowlers in 50-over games on the bouncy tracks Down Under, and the third was putting a commanding performance at home against the local bowlers in the experiment with the pink ball in the Duleep Trophy.
In their heroics, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey and Mayank Agarwal showed how the Karnataka batting pool is oozing with talent. The 24-year-old Rahul hit hundreds in Tests and T20s against the West Indies, 26-year-old Pandey smashed two hundreds and a half-century in Australia and 25-year-old Agarwal put on a dominant show at home with a belligerent 92 and 161 in the Duleep Trophy.
“All of them are different, each has a distinctively style,” says Karnataka coach J Arunkumar. Pandey is unorthodox, has worked his own way of getting runs. Rahul has transformed his game completely by working heavily on his strokeplay, turning from a patient run accumulator to a destructive hitter. And, on the other hand, Agarwal has groomed himself from a one-dimensional power-hitter to add patience, reveals the former Karnataka batsman.
Arunkumar credits the strong work culture and high motivation level in the current lot to this transformation into the most intimidating line-up in the country. The example was set by Robin Uthappa, says the coach.
In his ambition to get back his place in the Indian team, Uthappa had begun a process where he worked with a maniacal zeal. He may not have gotten the desired results, but he became a kind of role model in the unit.
“It started from Robin, and the culture has spread really well in the last three to four years. It’s all down to hard work. The work ethics in the team are really great,” says Arunkumar.
An important factor was the success of their Ranji team. Being part of the champion team, your performance is recognised more. The selectors had to take notice. With players’ getting the breaks in various teams, it meant, the players were never short of motivation.
“Seeing their teammates’ success, each guy started to believe I am good enough. They realised, it’s not too tough to play for the country. They know, ‘we can achieve it’. Out of the squad of 15, almost nine are playing in India, India A or South Zone. Even youngsters are aspiring to play at the highest level.”
But, it’s not just the tournament wins. It is the brand of aggressive cricket Rahul, Agarwal and Pandey are playing that is eye-popping.
“For our batsmen, I set a target of 100 in 120 to 130 balls, I have told them, if they are to play for India then they should be facing Ranji bowlers like club bowlers, not meaning to dismiss the bowlers’, just that we are being positive. There’s no point in getting a 100 in 300 balls, if you bat slowly it will be a draw,” reveals Arunkumar, who himself has 20 hundreds in first-class cricket.
After his swashbuckling hundred in the T20I at Florida last week, it may seem like Rahul was born to play Twenty20 cricket, but that was hardly the case. Up to the last Indian Premier League, he had looked like a fish out of water and had to work heavily on improving his strokemaking ability.
Pandey is just a natural talent across formats. He announced his arrival with T20 cricket, being the first Indian to get a hundred in the Indian Premier League. He had to wait for a long time for his chances, now that he has got the break in one-day cricket, he is determined to be up there with the best. Everyone’s talking about Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma’s exploits in the limited over series in Australia at the start of the year, but the defining innings of the tour was played by Pandey. It was his hundred (in the fifth and final ODI) that gave India its first win after four losses, and turned the tide for the men in blue.
To his credit, Pandey has maintained his motivation for the A level games, scoring two hundreds and a fifty. He has made it impossible for the selectors to ignore him.
Agarwal was a bundle of raw talent when he first burst on to the scene in the IPL, playing in a pattern of two-three powerful hits before throwing it away. He was one dimensional. He has kept improving his game and in his innings in Duleep Trophy, he has looked an all-round player. The strokeplay has not been curbed but is patient enough to wait for the right ball to hit.
The Karnataka batting factory is brimming with quality. With Uthappa and Karun Nair in the mix, it has an intimidating look. Imagine if they are all available for a Ranji game this season? Arunkumar, though, doesn’t see that happening in a packed international season.
“We are unlikely to have all of them as they will be on national duty, but we have backup players.”