Karnataka are three matches from completing a clean sweep in Indian cricket. Having won the Vijay Hazare Trophy and T20 Mushtaq Ali Trophy limited-overs tournaments, they are firm favourites to regain the Ranji Trophy as well.
Last week, they topped the Ranji Elite Group B table in sealing a quarterfinal spot, leaving other teams marvelling at their dominance. They will be stronger for the next match against Jammu & Kashmir as they are likely to get back the services of India stars KL Rahul and Manish Pandey.
Karnataka State Cricket Association’s (KSCA) experiment with the franchisee-based Twenty20 league has run into trouble following fixing allegations, but the senior state teams are sweeping the all-India competitions.
Karnataka have been the most dominant team in the last decade. They won back-to-back trebles—Ranji Trophy, Irani Cup and Vijay Hazare—in 2013-14 and 2014-15. And 2019-2020 has added to the lustre. This season’s wins make it four Vijay Hazare and two Syed Mushtaq Ali titles each.
They owe the sustained success to a cricket system that has delivered. One of the teams at the receiving end this season was Mumbai, the most successful Ranji team with 41 titles and Karnataka’s biggest domestic rivals over the last three decades. In their league clash at the Mumbai Cricket Association’s academy ground, a depleted Karnataka scored an outright win over the near full-strength hosts—Prithvi Shaw opened the batting, Ajinkya Rahane came in at No. 3 followed by Suryakumar Yadav and the explosive Sarfaraz Khan.
It was really impressive as Karnataka are also rebuilding after a few of their most experienced players left. “The team which defeated Mumbai the other day was depleted. Their international players, Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, were missing. At end of the last season, their most experienced pacer Vinay Kumar decided to move to Puducherry. Stuart Binny moved to Nagaland. And (pacer) Sreenath Aravind opted to coach the team. Robin Uthappa (Kerala) had also moved away,” Makarand Waingankar said.
Waingankar has close connection with both associations. Mumbai is his home state and he has served KSCA as a professional. “The Mumbai Cricket Association should study the KSCA model which is churning out players who are performing consistently,” says Waingankar, who helped Karnataka streamline talent development by implementing the Talent Resource Development Officer (TRDO) scheme, his brainchild, in 2001.
While Mumbai have particularly struggled to unearth home-bred bowlers of quality, Karnataka have had a well-rounded look in the last two decades.
Backed by then KSCA secretary, Brijesh Patel, Waingankar helped launched the scheme, and the state is still reaping its benefits. Its success is encapsulated in a scene from the film “Dhoni” where the character based on former BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya calls up a top ex-player (Dilip Vengsarkar), tells him about the set-up in Karnataka and asks the former India captain to helm the board’s own TRDO scheme. (BCCI started it in 2002 and Dhoni was among those recommended through it, by Raju Mukherjee and PC Podar. They went to monitor an under-19 match, but happened to watch the batting exploits of Dhoni by chance—he was already over 19.)
In 2001, former India batsman Brijesh Patel, as KSCA secretary, asked Mumbai-based Waingankar to help revamp Karnataka’s junior cricket. Unlike Mumbai, the state had 30 districts, some as large as Mumbai. “It was a herculean task to travel to all districts, which I did for eight consecutive weeks,” says Waingankar, a cricket administrator and a cricket columnist as well. The KSCA academy was launched as per his blueprint.
“We began the process of spotting talent through TRDOs who were former state players. Within three months a huge pool of exceptional talent from villages and districts emerged. We organised inter-district and inter-zonal matches for four age-groups. KL Rahul was spotted when he was 10, Manish Pandey was 13, Uthappa was 14, Karun Nair was 13.”
Things are even more streamlined now. In 2010, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath took over as KSCA president and secretary respectively and pushed for improving infrastructure in the districts. Though there were facilities, the India stalwarts in their three-year tenure prepared around 60 turf wickets across the state. Academies with proper grounds and net facilities were set up. It’s a state that has several centres to host India A matches.
“It is about taking coaching to their doorstep, not asking the kid to shift to Bengaluru. Running two establishments for any middle-class family is difficult,” Waingankar says.
How Karnataka pick their state teams also makes for an interesting study. Everything is meticulously planned to ensure the player, when selected to the final squad, is battle ready.
Six teams, from the districts as well as Bengaluru, play in a round robin league conducted in the Ranji Trophy format. Four short-listed teams then participate in an All-India open tournament, for which teams are invited. The Ranji probables are selected on the basis of performances in these matches.
For the 50-over Vijay Hazare tournament, teams from all over Karnataka first play a knock-out event. Then top eight teams and the top eight from the previous year are divided into four zonal groups. The top two from each zonal league qualify for the quarterfinals, replicating the Vijay Hazare format. The final is held under lights at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. A similar process is followed to pick the T20 side as well. The process has been the same for the last two decades. Such a meticulour approach helped KSCA start the process of finding replacements for six to eight slots from April last year.
Karnataka’s first Ranji title since 1998-99 came in 2013-14. For ex-Karnataka opener and state coach J Arunkumar, the breakthrough year was 2013 when the team completed a treble. “Before that we were losing in the knockouts, may be getting psyched looking at the opponents who we were going to play, that we are against Saurashtra, Delhi, etc. That year, we decided we will just focus on 11 versus 11 (players). It worked well and we won Ranji,” he said.
That boosted confidence that they were among the best in the country and could win the top tournaments. “Every player started competing against the other (for places); competitiveness helped raise the standards,” he said.
Now youngsters come into the side knowing their precise roles.
“We have one of the best structures and set-ups in the country. We have the KSCA Trophy tournament, four-day matches, which is the perfect preparation for Ranji Trophy. TRDO and the Karnataka Premier League now help us identify hidden talent in the district. The promising players are then brought to the KSCA academy.”
Karnataka’s all-round strength has come to the fore again this season. There may not be players in the lists of top-scorers and highest wicket-takers, but the team has notched up four outright wins so far. The batting has revolved around young opener Devidutt Padikkal (547 runs), R Samarth (428 runs) and skipper Karun Nair (338 runs). Bowlers Abhimanyu Mithun, K Gowtham and R More have shared the spoils, with 27, 21 and 20 wickets respectively.
The TRDO’s success lies in its implementation. The officers upload their points on a website; one is not aware of the other official’s assessment. If a player is given 85% or more, he is placed in the A plus category. To ensure neutrality, if a TRDO is from Mangalore, the official won’t be eligible to monitor Mangalore district matches. There are 6-7 officials; KSCA also introduced a common coaching syllabus, and the practice of “I coach the way I played” was done away with.
There are six academy centres: Mysore, Mangalore, Raichur, Dharwad, Tumkur and Shimoga. There are two coaches for each age-group (14, 16 & 19) and one trainer and physio each. The women’s camp functions only in the headquarters (Bengaluru) for senior and junior teams. There was struggle over the last three years to fund the coaching centres as KSCA took time to implement the Lodha committee reforms, a condition that needed to be fulfilled by units for BCCI’s Supreme Court-appointed administrators to release funds.
Though Mumbai have been the most dominant Ranji side, they have had three disappointing seasons in a row. The traditional batting powerhouse not being able to find quality homegrown bowlers has been a big problem, which skipper Aditya Tare pointed out after the Ranji campaign.
Mumbai bowled out the opposition only in one game. It hurt them the most against Saurashtra when they failed to take the last three wickets to be eliminated. Mumbai have occasionally imported bowling talent, Vinoo Mankad, Raju Jadeja and Karsan Ghavri being the examples.
Waingankar pointed to how a bowling foundation he helped set up three decades ago had made a difference. “In 1990, the Mafatlal bowling scheme was launched and it went on for three years. It proved that only homegrown talent will help,” he said.
Abey Kuruvilla, Paras Mhambrey, Nilesh Kulkarni, Sairaj Bahutule (all played for India) and Manish Patel benefitted, serving Mumbai cricket until well after the scheme wound down.
It appears the time is right for another bowling talent hunt in the cradle of batsmen.