"We have a very good team and definitely Karnataka is a very strong side."
It's odd to hear those words from R Vinay Kumar, talking of his team playing against Karnataka. It's odder still when you realise he's going to occupy the 'away' dressing room at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. The anomaly is complete with J Arunkumar standing beside Vinay, as the 'away' coach against Karnataka at the Chinnaswamy.
Before the current domestic season began, Puducherry pulled off a coup of sorts by not only hiring Arunkumar as coach, but also roping in Vinay as one of their three professional players. They wouldn't have known then, that the combination that took Karnataka to an unprecedented double-treble - of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup - from 2013 to 2015, would end up facing their former team at the first available opportunity in the 2019-20 domestic season.
Puducherry steamrolled their opposition in the Plate Group, earning a quarter-final spot against the Group A and B toppers, which turned out to be Karnataka. And now, the two men who were front and centre of Karnataka's two most glorious years, will be plotting their downfall.
"I never thought I was going to play against Karnataka," Vinay said on the eve of their quarter-final. "But it's cricket. We just need to play to win. I'm looking at it as one more game. Definitely there will be a lot of emotion involved, but when it comes to business, it's business. I never thought that I would be playing so soon against them in an important game. It's a bit similar to how in the IPL and KPL, my close friends could be in the opposite teams but we needed to win that game."
Karnataka are the heavyweights and the favourites, but in Puducherry, they have an opponent with tools uniquely fitted to cause a flutter of worry. Vinay has performed better at the Chinnaswamy than he has overall, and both he and Arunkumar know not just the ground, but the opponents, inside out. Vinay's first-class bowling average at the Chinnaswamy is 21.46, against a career figure of 23.53. In List A matches, he averages 18.60 at an economy rate of 5.14. Those figures would read even better without the only ODI he's played there, where he conceded 102 runs in nine overs for one wicket. His overall List A average and economy rate are 24.19 and 4.81. The last time Vinay played at the Chinnaswamy, he almost took Karnataka to victory over Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy 2018-19 semi-final, having put in his most inspired bowling performance of an otherwise sub-par bowling season, only for Cheteshwar Pujara to get a lucky break in their fourth-innings chase.
"It's a bit of an advantage because you know these players really well," Arunkumar said. "(Devdutt) Padikkal even played for my team in the KPL. But the execution is very important. Usually, if you plan too much it doesn't work."
"I know about their weakness and they know about mine," Vinay said, while Arunkumar joked about whether Vinay actually had any weaknesses.
S Aravind, who is now the Karnataka bowling coach but bowled alongside Vinay for several years and worked under Arunkumar, said it was bittersweet facing old friends. "We have to look at them as opposition now. There'll be a healthy competition," Aravind smiled. "As friends, we are in touch, but during the game, we are in different units."
One of the aces up Karnataka's sleeve is captain Manish Pandey. He has been in sublime touch through the tournament, and has looked like he belongs to a level above the one he's currently competing in every time he has stepped out to bat. And both Vinay and Arunkumar know that they will need to neutralise Pandey.
"He's performed in every game. I've been watching his scores and he's doing superbly," Vinay said. "Being a captain and performing like that shows his calibre, and you can see the difference in the team - they've ended up top of the group."
Arunkumar focussed on the fact that it was a one-ball game for batsmen. "In the end, it just takes one ball, one mistake, or one brilliant catch," he said. "Throughout all our league games, we've got all teams all out within 40 overs [Puducherry bowled their opponents out in all seven games they had a full bowling innings in, but three of the teams lasted beyond 40 overs]. It shows how commendable our bowling unit is. Our medium pace department is fantastic, and I think we have some of the best spinners in the country.
"He (Pandey) is playing his natural game as captain, (but) there will be a bit of pressure now since it's a quarter-final. Like I said, it's just a matter of one ball."
Vinay will have potentially 60 of them with his new team, to overturn the fortunes of his old one.