There is something about the big stage that brings out the best in Karun Nair. He has made a career out of thriving in crunch games. In 2013-14, his debut season, Nair struck successive centuries in Karnataka's last group stage match, the quarter-final and the semi-final. The following year, he endured a horrid patch and was on the verge of being dropped for the final. But he hit back with a match-winning triple century as Karnataka bulldozed Tamil Nadu by an innings and 217 runs for a second successive title.
On Monday, in the semi-final against Vidarbha, Nair made the latest addition to his repertoire of clutch performances: a diligently-constructed 148 not out that powered Karnataka to a first-innings lead that could secure a final spot.
The essence of Nair's innings at Eden Gardens lay in how he steered the team through different stages of the game. Nair had survived a taxing passage to close out the opening day. He took the field on Monday knowing exactly what was needed of him. Karnataka's top order had crumbled to the pace of Rajneesh Gurbani and Umesh Yadav. Even one more wicket inside the first hour could have tilted the game in Vidarbha's favour. It was an onerous task, but Nair performed it with clarity of mind and precision in execution.
Early in his day, Nair had to contend with a heavy ball, laden with moisture, that didn't quite come on as well as he would have liked. There was also the variable bounce, as has become characteristic of this venue since the pitches were relaid, which never allows batsmen to feel completely settled. Nair countered that by largely playing with a straight bat and deftly picking the gaps.
"I just think pressure situations bring the best out of me. They make me concentrate harder," he said. "It was important for us to keep batting, and keep batting with discipline. What I told myself is that I need to make the bowlers bowl on the stumps or short. Until then, I'll keep batting straight with soft hands. If anything lands on the stumps, I'll try to pick the gaps."
That sort of discipline was abundantly on display. Nair let his innings develop organically. He showed oodles of patience outside the off stump and used his judgement well to suss out any late movement off the deck. He did occasionally open up, but it was only when he was sure that he had covered the line of the delivery reasonably well. A couple of drives and slashes early in the day had Vidarbha excited, but only momentarily as he pierced the field expertly on those occasions.
Always one to express himself when the opportunity presents itself, Nair brought out his range of strokes as the pitch dried up and became easier to bat on. His sweeps were productive, as is the case always, but a pulled six over backward square leg off Gurbani, the day's best bowler, and a ramp over the keeper to a short ball from the same bowler also stood out. What remained constant, though, was that Nair was always calculated.
"It's still the same wicket. Probably we bowled really well on the pitch and our bowlers were able to get more assistance," he said. "We will know whether it has changed or not when we bowl for a second time on it. But it's really a challenging wicket to bat on."
This sort of ability to deliver in crunch situations is what earned him a Test cap against England last year. In just his third game, Nair racked up an unbeaten triple century - becoming only the second India batsman to do so - on a batting beauty in Chennai. A day before the one-year anniversary of that knock, Nair admitted to having it at the back of his mind.
And, as though celebrating the occasion with an important century in the semi-final wasn't special enough, Nair injected an interesting dose of freshness into the actual act of celebrating his century on Monday. After reaching the non-striker's end to complete a single, Nair put his bat down, walked over to his partner Abhimanyu Mithun for a handshake, and then got down on one knee to conjure up an imaginary bow, before shooting an arrow into the sky. It was a rare sight, coming from a man known for his ability to retain composure irrespective of how he has fared.
"Nothing special about it," he chuckled. "Just that everyone was telling me that I don't do anything apart from lifting my bat. Everyone was asking me to do something different. I just saw the celebrations in the football (it is famous in the National Football League), and decided to do it."
As he batted through the day, a different set of challenges greeted Nair at each stage. If the start was about batting with CM Gautam to take Karnataka past the early jitters, the middle period was about erasing the deficit. Having ticked both those boxes, he then rallied with the lower order to consolidate Karnataka's lead. And he was efficiently aided by Mithun, with whom he added 27 for the eighth wicket, and Vinay Kumar with whom he has added 69 unbeaten runs so far for the ninth.
"He (Vinay) batted with real discipline. I had told him that it is really difficult to drive on this wicket, so just wait for them to bowl on the stumps and just defend the good balls. That's what I did; I never tried to play any cover drive or on the rise. Just waited for them to bowl short or on the stumps. It's really easy when you do that, and he's batting well."