© AFP

Manish Pandey and KL Rahul walk right into the playing XI. © AFP

Bangalore might not be the place to be this time of the year if playing cricket is on the agenda, with rain and subsequent chills trapping most indoors, but Alur, some 22 kilometres from the heart of the city, provides aspirants with the perfect setting.

Not that the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s state-of-the-art cricket facility in North Bangalore will not witness its share of rain delays in the coming days, but it is expected that the fifth round Ranji Trophy 2017-18 clash between Karnataka and Delhi, starting on Thursday (November 9), will see considerable play time with the sun shining atop the top two teams on the Group A table fighting to consolidate their positions on the table.

Three games into the season, the R Vinay Kumar-led Karnataka have looked in prime touch, establishing themselves on top of the table with 20 points courtesy three outright wins, including a relatively shaky victory over Hyderabad.

Not far behind – 16 points – are Delhi. After how they started the season – a tame draw against Assam at the Feroz Shah Kotla – Ishant Sharma’s men gained momentum with a comprehensive win over Railways followed by a narrow win over Uttar Pradesh in their last encounter.

While Nitish Rana and Gautam Gambhir were the ones contributing with the bat, Ishant’s effort with the ball played a significant part in Delhi regrouping after that start. The Indian paceman has 15 wickets at an average of 13.93, but unfortunately, he won’t be available for Delhi for the foreseeable future.

Ishant is busy preparing for India duties as part of the three-match Test series squad against Sri Lanka, starting in Kolkata on November 16.

Interestingly enough, KL Rahul chose to play this four-day game, which by schedule concludes on November 12, to get himself into Test mode. If that isn’t enough of a shot in the arm — not that they needed one — for Karnataka, Manish Pandey, who was busy with limited-overs duty in India’s series against New Zealand, walks right into the playing eleven,

With Rahul and Pandey (arriving in Bangalore from Thiruvananthapuram late on Wednesday evening) returning to their respective spots in the team, Kaunian Abbas and Pavan Deshpande will take the bench, while Ronit More and J Suchith fight for the one remaining spot. Their selection will be based on what Vinay makes of the surface on the morning of the match, but the skipper did assert repeatedly that conditions will favour pacemen.

Once again, that is where Delhi will miss Ishant’s services. So far, they rode on Ishant and Navdeep Saini’s efforts with the new ball and banked on Manan Sharma, the left-arm spinner, to carry them through the middle overs. With Ishant out, they don’t have the pace or the precision to assist Saini, despite favourable conditions.

Not only did Ishant’s exit leave Delhi with the problem in the bowling department, it also left them without a skipper. Enter Rishabh Pant.

The 20-year-old star in the making has been among the more consistent performers for Delhi since making his debut a couple of years ago. That he was picked ahead of Gautam Gambhir, the former skipper, says something about the direction in which the team wants to go, but the overall lack of experience may just come to haunt Delhi in this game.

Gambhir, who wasn’t present at Delhi’s pre-match practice session, will need to shepherd this young unit every turn of the way if they are to stand a chance against Karnataka. It is intimidating when Karnataka bring out the big guns. However, the last time they did have a full-strength squad identical to this one, it was the quarterfinal game against Tamil Nadu last season, and they lost.

This time around, Mayank Agarwal, who made a stunning 304 not out in the previous game, Karun Nair, K Gowtham, Abhimanyu Mithun, and of course Vinay himself, are in tremendous form, and it’s likely that they won’t slip up. But then again, cricket can sometimes be as fickle as the weather in Bangalore.

Teams (likely):

Karnataka: R Vinay Kumar (capt), KL Rahul, R Samarth, Karun Nair, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey, CM Gautam (Wicketkeeper), Stuart Binny, K Gowtham, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ronit More.

Delhi: Rishabh Pant (capt), Unmukt Chand, Gautam Gambhir, Kulwant Khejroliya, Manan Sharma, Milind Kumar, Nitish Rana, Dhruv Shorey, Vikas Tokas, Vikas Mishra, Lalit Yadav.