Bengaluru: Less than a week after retaining the Ranji Trophy, Karnataka will be back in action in the five-day Irani Cup game against Rest of India beginning here on Tuesday, looking to round off the season with a grand double just as they did a year ago.
Undoubtedly, Karnataka have been the best of the teams in the country with a fine blend of youth and experience with just about every player chipping in at vital moments.
Boasting of balance in terms of batsmen and bowlers, Karnataka, ably led by Vinay Kumar, one of the heroes of last year's Irani Cup triumph with a 10-wicket haul, will be starting out as hot favourites to win the honours for the fifth time in six outings.
Such has been the strength of Karnataka that they are unlikely to miss their star batsman Lokesh Rahul if he opts out of the match owing to a hamstring injury that he suffered in the Ranji Trophy final against Tamil Nadu last week in Mumbai.
As for Rest of India, led by Bengal batsman Manoj Tiwary, who has not had best of seasons, it will be a tough task to get past Karnataka who are high on confidence and brimming with talent.
Rest of India appear strong in bowling with the likes of experienced left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, pacemen Shardul Thakur, who had an excellent Ranji season for Mumbai while finishing as joint wicket-taker with Vinay Kumar with a haul of 48, and Jharkhand's Varun Aaron, who missed much of the domestic season due to national duty.
The national selectors have not gone strictly by statistics in picking the Rest of India squad, preferring to try out new faces rather than those who were given a chance in the past.
In the event, it is a matter of conjecture as to how the team whose players are getting together will perform against a side that has been together through the season.
The home team's major concern through the season was their inconsistent middle-order that has never clicked as a unit though Karun Nair emulated Rahul by scoring a triple century against Tamil Nadu in the final.
Karnataka's bowling has been the high point with seamers Vinay Kumar (48), Sreenath (42) and Abhimanyu Mithun (39) besides young leg-spinner Shreyas Gopal (28) doing the bulk of damage.
Thus, Rest of India, who were beaten by an innings and 222 runs last year, after being dismissed for 201 and 183 while Karnataka made 606, face an uphill task to stop the Ranji champions who are on a roll.
Rest of India: Manoj Tiwary (Bengal, captain), Unmukt Chand (Delhi), Jiwanjot Singh (Punjab), Paras Dogra (Himachal), Kedar Jadhav (Maharashtra), Naman Ojha (Madhya Pradesh), Rishi Dhawan (Himachal), Jayant Yadav (Haryana), Pragyan Ojha (Hyderabad), Shardul Thakur (Mumbai), Varun Aaron (Jharkhand), Rush Kalaria (Gujarat), Aparajith Baba (Tamil Nadu), Jalaj Saxena (Madhya Pradesh), Vijay Shankar (Tamil Nadu).
Karnataka: Vinay Kumar (captain), Robin Uthappa, Samarth R., Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, Shreyas Gopal, Shishir Bhavane, Abhishek Reddy, Udit Patel, Abhimanyu Mithun, Arvind Sreenath, Sharath H.S., Suchith J., Avinash K.C., Mayank Agarwal and Gautam C.M.
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