For the past two years, if there's any aspect of Vidarbha's cricket that you could rely on, it was their top order. In a team that has two professionals who are batsmen - Wasim Jaffer and Ganesh Satish - and an India player in Faiz Fazal, getting runs on the board was never a concern. Vidarbha rode on the back of these three men, and young wicketkeeper Akshay Wadkar, to post above-par totals through the Ranji Trophy season.
Yet, when it mattered the most, like in the Ranji Trophy final against Saurashtra, the Vidarbha top order wobbled heavily. It was left to their young lower-order batsmen to carry the load, and if it wasn't for them, Vidarbha wouldn't even have made the Irani Cup. And now that they're in the Irani Cup, once again, it's their lower-order resistance that has lifted them into an advantageous position against Rest of India [RoI] in Nagpur.
Let's rewind to February 3 - the first day of the Ranji Trophy final. At 139 for 6 against a Saurashtra attack led by Jaydev Unadkat and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, Vidarbha had no business reaching 312, especially after none of their top six batsmen got to fifty. But a dogged rearguard effort ensured they had taken a tiny lead, having bowled Saurashtra out for 307 in their first innings.
Then came their second innings, the match's third. Starting off with a five-run lead, they were swiftly reduced to 73 for 5, with Jaffer, Fazal and Ganesh failing to make an impact once again - and looked destined to lose the Ranji Trophy final. But once again, their last five batsmen added 86 runs on a very difficult track to set Saurashtra a target that eventually was too big for them.
The Irani Cup has followed the same template for Vidarbha. Yesterday, when they were struggling at 168 for 5 just after tea, not many would have wagered that Vidarbha's lower order could go past RoI's 330, let alone finish with a lead of 95. It all happened courtesy allrounder Akshay Karnewar, and his troupe of Vidarbha boys, who dug in deep.
After the third day, Karnewar told ESPNcricinfo that the batting improvements in Vidarbha's lower order wasn't just by chance. It was a very conscious effort from their - for the lack of a kinder word - less-fancied batsmen to carry the team's batting right down to No. 11.
"Our lower-order batsmen have worked hard in the nets," Karnewar said. "Because they weren't contributing much up until the semis. It's something that was pointed out by our coaches, and we have consciously worked on this."
In all, Vidarbha's last five partnerships in the Irani Cup's first innings stitched together three half-century stands. Even their last pair - whose combined first-class batting average is less than 10 - added 39 crucial runs. In their last three innings, Vidarbha's last five batsmen, Nos 7 to 11, have made 40.3%, 43% and 41.9% of the team's runs.
A bit of that has come down to home advantage, as Karnewar himself admits, but he also says that as allrounders and bowlers, they understand exactly how the pitch at Nagpur's VCA Ground behaves. It's that skill, of reading the surface while batting - even though one's not a front-line batter - that's helped the team's lower-order raise their game.
"Firstly, it's our home ground, so we have an idea of how to play here," Karnewar said. "We need to play sensibly; just can't come and start hitting on this ground. You saw how they [Mayank Agarwal and Anmolpreet Singh, of RoI] got out trying to attempt big shots."
It was a memorable day for Karnewar himself - who has shined through the Ranji season with both bat and his slow left-arm spin - but failed to reach three figures up until today. His 94 against Railways in the group-stage game and an arguably match-winning innings of 73 not-out in the final showed brief glimpses of his skill as a proper allrounder. But his 102 today against the best Indian bowlers of the season, took the cake for the 26-year-old from Wagholi.
"Feeling very well right now, especially scoring my first hundred, that too in the Irani Trophy," Karnewar said. "Doing good for the team gives me satisfaction.
"The match is very open. The first plan for us today was to cross the lead, and I was happy we did that. But I was disappointed getting out to a loose shot. It's left the match open."
Karnewar, though, felt his maiden first-class ton was still far away from being a match-winning hundred. What's important on the fourth day, according to him, is the accuracy with which they bowl to RoI. In overnight batsmen, Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari, and a star-studded middle order comprising Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishan to follow, Vidarbha have a massive challenge of ensuring that the target in the fourth innings doesn't bloat up. He, in fact, even had a score in mind, after which the game might slip away from Vidarbha's grasp.
"The wicket is turning, and [there's] a lot of bounce too," Karnewar said. "So on this ground, it's important to not bowl boundary balls, and the pitch will give you rewards. It's not an easy wicket, it's very challenging, but if we chase around 150, then we can definitely win this game."