Vinay Kumar - The 'Davangere Express' that took Karnataka to uncharted territories

Vinay Kumar will be remembered as a legend of Karnataka cricket.
Vinay Kumar will be remembered as a legend of Karnataka cricket.

There’s only one team in 88 years of Indian domestic cricket that’s won back-to-back trebles (Ranji, Irani and Vijay Hazare Trophies): Karnataka. Evidently, it was Vinay Kumar’s shrewd captaincy that helped his team achieve this unprecedented feat.

With this accomplishment, the pacer has now become the cynosure of rich Karnataka folklore as one of its (if not the greatest) greatest captains ever. After spin wizard Erapalli Prasanna, Vinay Kumar is only the second captain to have led Karnataka to two Ranji titles.

Humble beginnings couldn’t stop Vinay Kumar’s cricketing surge

Born on Feb 12, 1984, in Davangere, a second-string city in Karnataka, Vinay Kumar had humble beginnings. But that didn’t deter him one bit. Having started playing cricket with a tennis ball as a kid, Vinay was coached by his mentor, Prakash Pawar.

That’s when Vinay Kumar turned into seam bowling — honed his skills with the ball, forsaking his batting desires. Little did he know then that this switch would take him to the highest level of the sport.

As a teenager, Vinay Kumar played in the Tumakuru league, and his performances spoke for themselves. Bucketfuls of wickets year after year meant he got the recognition he deserved, making his Ranji debut for Karnataka in 2004, at the tender age of 20.

First-class cricket - Here I come

Vinay Kumar made his debut for Karnataka against Bengal in Kolkata, sharing the new ball with Karnataka stalwart and former Test cricketer Dodda Ganesh. Vinay picked a total of 5 wickets in the game, including those of Rohan Gavaskar and Sourav Ganguly, and started his FC career on the right note.

There was no looking back since. The Davangere express had arrived and was gaining momentum with every game. From there, Vinay Kumar went on from strength to strength with every passing year — picking up wickets at will.

Pace was never his forte, but he’d mastered the art of swinging the ball both ways, in the mid-130s range. He was more than handy with the bat as well, contributing with runs down the order.

From travelling to Bengaluru from Davangere in second class compartments without reservation to living in dormitories, Vinay Kumar’s life as a first-class cricketer was definitely not a bed of roses. But these challenges only made him stronger, and the results were there for all to see.

By 2007, he was one of the country's top domestic bowlers and was also crowned the domestic bowler of the year once in that period. Subsequently, the Karnataka seamer started featuring regularly in the Duleep Trophy, Irani Cup and the India ‘A’ sides.

The writing was on the wall. Vinay Kumar was surely cut out to make it at the highest level. But that opportunity eluded him on a few occasions up until he made a mark at IPL 2010, where he claimed 16 wickets, the most by any seamer in that edition.

In the 2009/10 Ranji Trophy, too, Vinay was at the top of his bowling prowess. He picked up 46 wickets, and led the young Karnataka bowling attack well till the finals, grabbed eyeballs along the way.

Vinay Kumar was making all the right noises. It was almost impossible for the selectors to ignore the then 26-year-old seamer. Eventually, after toiling hard for six years in domestic cricket, Vinay was picked in the Indian squad for the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean.

International career - A curate’s egg

Vinay Kumar didn't have the best of times while playing for India.
Vinay Kumar didn't have the best of times while playing for India.

Vinay Kumar made his debut for India in a dead rubber against Sri Lanka in the T20 World Cup. He impressed with the figures of 2/30 off 4 overs, picking up the prized wickets of Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara.

Later that year, he toured Zimbabwe with a second-string Indian side and returned with decent performances. But he’d have to spend another year in the wilderness, until the England tour in 2011, before playing another game for India.

From 2011-2013, Vinay Kumar was with the Indian limited overs’ team playing games in a sporadic fashion. Even though he didn’t set the stage on fire with his bowling, he did a decent job more often than not, good enough to hold on to this place.

Apart from his lower-order batting skills, Vinay was a gun fielder as well, a rare quality among Indian seam bowlers. During the 2012 tri-series Down Under involving Sri Lanka and Australia, Vinay Kumar picked up 9 wickets, the most by an Indian.

On that tour, he also made his Test debut at Perth and picked up the solitary wicket of M.Hussey, conceding 73 runs. It was a forgettable outing. But Vinay Kumar moved on from there and was still a regular in the ODI and T20I setup.

In 2013, when Australia toured India for a one-off T20I and a seven-match ODI series, Vinay Kumar started off well, with a 3-wicket haul in the T20I game and in the ODIs, too, he was regularly picking up wickets.

But as fate would have it, in the last game of the series at his home ground in Bengaluru, the Davangere Express was derailed. He was taken to the cleaners by the Aussies. Vinay’s 9 overs went for 102 runs. It was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Despite scalping 8 wickets, the most by an Indian seamer in the series, Vinay was unceremoniously dropped from the Indian team. Such was the impact of his infamous spell at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

Vinay Kumar - The Karnataka great

Vinay Kumar has two first-class hundreds and 17 half-centuries to his name.
Vinay Kumar has two first-class hundreds and 17 half-centuries to his name.

After being out of the Indian team in 2013, Vinay Kumar did not lose his way. Instead, he used his international experience and resurrected the Karnataka team that had not won the Ranji Trophy in 14 long years.

Captain Vinay Kumar seemed like a man possessed. With his shrewd leadership skills, he led from the front and helped Karnataka win their seventh Ranji title in 2013/14. Throughout the season, he was spot on with his bowling changes, field settings and the assessment of the pitches and players.

The season also saw the first-class debuts of Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair, Shreyas Gopal and R.Samarth, while KL Rahul made a great comeback with a 1000-plus-run season. All these names are now stalwarts of Karnataka cricket, but in 2013, it was Vinay who spotted the spark in them and backed these youngsters with ample opportunities.

The Karnataka captain didn’t hesitate to even drop a few experienced players, viz. KP Appanna, Ganesh Satish and Amit Verma, to accommodate the likes of Gopal, Samarth and Nair.

That season, Karnataka also registered their first-ever outright win against Mumbai. And with a few experienced players like Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, CM Gautam, Abhimanyu Mithun and Sreenath Aravind forming the nucleus, Captain Vinay made the Karnataka team an invincible unit. They hardly put a foot wrong, winning every trophy in sight for a couple of years.

Vinay Kumar’s two semi-final spells deserve a special mention here. In the 2013/14 semis vs Punjab, Vinay’s 5/27 restricted Yuvraj Singh’s Punjab to 270 from 223/3. After being off the field with back-spasms, the Karnataka captain came back with an eight-over spell that ended Punjab’s hopes.

In the 2014/15 semis, against arch-rivals Mumbai, Vinay’s 6/20 reduced Mumbai to an ignominious 44. Both these spells were an exhibition of seam bowling and would definitely be considered one of the finest spells bowled in domestic cricket.

Eventually, in the 2014/15 finals against TN, Vinay picked a fifer and also scored a century to win his team their eighth Ranji title. He even topped the bowling charts with 48 wickets at a miserly average of 18.

In these two years, along with the Ranji Trophy, Karnataka, under Vinay Kumar, won two back-to-back Vijay Hazare titles (limited-overs) and two Irani cups, beating two strong Rest of India sides. But despite relentlessly picking up wickets and scoring runs aplenty at the domestic level, the selectors didn’t relent.

Vinay, in his 30s, did not get to play another game for India in spite of making it to the Indian squad for the ODI series against Sri Lanka in 2014. Later, after being left out of the probables for the 2015 World Cup, Vinay’s international career was done and dusted.

An underrated IPL bowler

Vinay Kumar was the first Indian seamer to 100 IPL wickets.
Vinay Kumar was the first Indian seamer to 100 IPL wickets.

Vinay Kumar started his IPL career with RCB in 2008 as a domestic player. Later, he played for Kochi Tuskers Kerala, KKR and MI in a span of 10 years. To his credit, he was the first Indian seamer to breach 100 IPL wickets.

That is a great accomplishment when you consider that Indian internationals like Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, RP Singh, Munaf Patel, Sreesanth and Praveen Kumar were behind Vinay in the race.

He has also bowled some match-winning spells that hardly finds a mention. With his well-disguised back-of-the-hand slower balls and the ability to bowl yorkers at will at the death, Vinay was a force to reckon with in his peak. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he was the lynchpin of the RCB attack during the 2012 and 2013 IPL.

Vettori and Kohli inevitably turned to Vinay Kumar in crunch situations. It is, indeed, a testimony to his bowling credentials. In his IPL career, Vinay picked up 105 wickets in as many games at an acceptable economy rate of 8.3.

Almost ironically, he’s been subjected to some vicious trolling on social media quite often. Failing to defend 16 runs off the last over for KKR in 2018 drew the curtains to his IPL career. But Vinay can certainly look back at his IPL career with pride.

A decorated domestic career

Vinay Kumar’s international career might have been short-lived. A modest tally of 49 wickets in 41 games across formats at the highest level is, by no means, a clear reflection of his ability.

But he was a domestic giant in every sense, having picked up wickets for fun and, more often than not, bailed his team out of trouble with the bat. After 15 fruitful years with Karnataka, in 2019, Vinay Kumar moved to Puducherry to ply his trade.

At 35, the Karnataka lad was still too hot to handle for the plate group teams. During the 2019/20 season, Vinay went past Pankaj Singh for most wickets in the Ranji Trophy by a seamer. He has 442 Ranji wickets, and a total of 504 FC wickets, with 26 fifers and five 10 wicket hauls, at an average of 22. He also has two hat-tricks to his credit.

Vinay Kumar was no mug in the list-A format either. 225 wickets at an average of 24 shows he was equally good with the white ball as well.

And when you add 3311 first-class runs with two centuries and 17 half-centuries to his CV, it makes Vinay Kumar’s career look that much better. What Wasim Jaffer is to batting in domestic cricket, Vinay Kumar is to bowling. He will definitely go down as one of India’s great first-class cricketers.

Vinay Kumar’s lasting legacy in Karnataka cricket

Any fan who follows Karnataka cricket would mention Vinay Kumar in the same breath as the likes of Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath and the legends of yesteryear. Yes, Vinay Kumar hasn’t had a distinguished career with India at the international level, but his impact on Karnataka cricket is unmatched.

His tenure as captain is regarded as the watershed moment in Karnataka’s cricket history. As the team’s leader, he showed them the way, instilled confidence in his teammates, and helped Karnataka regain lost pride.

The core team that Vinay built then is still winning trophies across formats. The likes of KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair thanking Vinay Kumar for the support in their formative years after he announced his retirement in Feb 2021 is a testimony to Vinay’s contributions to Karnataka.

Agarwal, especially, owes a lot to his captain since he was the one who stood by the then-struggling Mayank in tough times and gave him an extended run. Now that Vinay Kumar is retired, all of Karnataka is hoping to see their favourite son back in the “Gandabherunda” set up as a coach or mentor. Hopefully, there’s a second wind for the Davangere express in a different capacity. You’re an absolute legend, Vinay. Go well in your second innings.

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Edited by Habil Ahmed Sherule
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