They fought the good fight, and though Puducherry couldn't conquer Karnataka, they did conquer some perceptions.
The induction of a whole raft of new teams in India's domestic cricket has had people wondering how they would hold up when pitted against the established teams. With one quarter-finalist slated to come from the Plate Group - facing the side that had topped Groups A and B - there was legitimate concern about lopsided matches.
As the Plate Group qualifier for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Puducherry needed to show that they weren't going to be pushovers, and they needed to do that with the knowledge of what had happened to Bihar in last year's qualifier. Up against Mumbai, Bihar were shot out for 69, with Mumbai cantering to victory in 12.3 overs in a game that lasted 40.5 overs overall.
Puducherry were facing a similar heavyweight in Karnataka, and at the latter's home ground, M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. Within the first hour and a half, it seemed like history would repeat itself with Puducherry 41 for 6. Enter Sagar Trivedi (54 off 60), M Vikneshwaran (58 off 98) and Fabid Ahmed (37 off 40), all of whom hit personal bests in List A cricket from Nos. 7 to 9, dragging the team to a respectable 207 for 9. The partnerships for the seventh, eighth and ninth wickets were worth 76, 58 and 31.
Karnataka's openers, KL Rahul (90 off 112) and Devdutt Padikkal (50 off 54), ensured the chase was never in any trouble, but Puducherry had much to look back on with satisfaction. This game wasn't about whether Puducherry could pull off an upset - to do that, they would have needed stars to align in an unprecedented fashion. This was about showing that qualifying from the Plate Group didn't mean you didn't belong on the big stage. Puducherry had the burden of carrying the flag for their entire division.
Last year, there were also murmurs about whether the Plate Group winners should face the top team in A and B, or would it be easier on them to face some other quarter-finalist. But Puducherry weren't complaining. "In the A and B group, you play all the top sides in the country, and if you do well, obviously you will want someone who is not that good, so fair enough," Trivedi said after the match. "We want good sides, because if we play good sides, we'll get better. We'll get to learn more. We want to play tougher sides. Next year, we'll be in Group C, so hopefully we can do well."
On Sunday, Puducherry were playing at the home venue of the strongest team in the league phase, the toppers of the toughest groups. They lost the toss and were asked to bat, having to negotiate the Chinnaswamy surface at the only time in the day it had some nip. There was moisture and movement for the bowlers in the first hour, and none thereafter in the match. They lost their top order in a tournament in which their lower order had hardly had a chance to bat in the league stages. That was because Puducherry batted second each time, and their bowlers did so well that only the top and middle order were needed to chase totals down. Facing scoreboard pressure and a fielding team moving in for the kill, they didn't just guts it out, but played with flair and freedom when the bowlers erred, moving the scoreboard along.
When Karnataka batted, the sun was out, any moisture in the pitch had long since dried. They had a top order consisting of Rahul, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair, not to speak of the teenaged Devdutt Padikkal who has been in rollicking form. The batting lived up to its billing, with Padikkal smooth from the start, and Rahul following the template he has adopted during this year's tournament by settling in and then opening out. Rahul was on 23 off 46 after 14 overs, but scored 67 off the next 66 balls he faced.
Padikkal's gears didn't vary greatly, though he would have been disappointed to get out when set, slashing left-arm spinner Sagar Udeshi straight to backward point. Udeshi would go on to get Rahul too, the batsman missing a sweep to be struck in front, but by then Karnataka needed only 22 more for victory. That left enough time for Rohan Kadam, promoted to No. 3, to hit his own maiden List A fifty, while Pandey moved to the top of the run-scoring chart in the tournament, finishing the chase off with a disdainfully powerful pull for six.
But Puducherry hadn't lost heart, or confidence. Trivedi said they never felt like underdogs coming into the match. "We weren't underdogs. On a given day, if all of us are doing well, we can beat any side in the country," he said. "We always talked about the fact that we don't belong in Plate Group. The kind of side we have, even the reserves, they are really good. I won't say the other teams are bad, but our team is strong and we can compete at the Elite level."
Karnataka were expected to be comfortable winners, and they were. However, Puducherry were expected to be easy fodder, and they weren't. The confidence about tussling with Group C next year might not be misplaced.