Not many would have thought that Kerala would make it to the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier first-class competition before the season got underway. It certainly would be no overstatement to say that before the season’s commencement, the team from India’s far south was caught in dire straits.
The team was in shambles as a bunch of players, including the likes of Rohan Prem and Sandeep Warrier, had shown dissent against the captain Sachin Baby. Also, it goes without saying that Kerala’s cricket association does not have an abundant pool of resources at its disposal.
Not many domestic cricketers want to join Kerala cricket. Mumbai and Karnataka are the envy of most first-class cricketers because of the kind of perks and facilities the players are provided.
The Gathering Storm
The growing tensions in the dressing room and a severe dearth of resources at hand were the least of the team’s worries as there were bigger demons lying under wraps. Everything was in shambles after floods in August 2018, had wreaked havoc throughout the state. This meant that the state’s cricketing facilities could not be put to use. Also, a severe lack of basic human amenities meant that cricket no longer occupied the center stage.
As my father always says, "You always live to fight another day," the men from down south battled against the odds to book a place in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against the defending champions Vidarbha.
The Coach’s Role
Dav Whatmore’s appointment as the coach came as a breath of fresh air for a side that happened to be at sixes and sevens before the commencement of the first-class season. The former Australian national demanded that egos be kept under the carpet. He wanted them to join forces and work towards steering the side out of muddy waters.
It becomes a huge problem when the senior players within a team lose faith in their captain. Whatmore asked the players to play as a single cohesive unit. Consequently, the friendships and the enmities were kept aside and the entire team came together to play quality cricket.
Kerala’s Ranji Trophy season was marked by countless ups and downs. The team won back-to-back matches against heavy-weights Andhra Pradesh and Bengal after drawing their opening fixture against Hyderabad.
The splendor ended when they were decimated by Madhya Pradesh. After being bowled out for 63 in the first innings and conceding a 265-run first-innings lead, the possibilities of a humiliating loss loomed. The second innings was no better and saw Kerala being reduced to 100/6 before skipper Baby joined forces with Vishnu Vinod to take Kerala into the lead.
Baby scored 143 whereas Vinod scored an unbeaten 193 while batting at number 8. Madhya Pradesh was set a target a target of 195. Madhya Pradesh eventually won the match by 6 wickets, but some excellent rear-guard action spoke volumes about the extent of improvement in Kerala's game.
Another heavy defeat followed soon after when the team was made to bite the dust against Tamil Nadu. A campaign that had started on a promising note was turning upside-down.
An innings victory against Delhi brought their campaign back on track, but a loss against Punjab thereafter left their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages on tenterhooks.
With a resounding win against Himachal Pradesh in their last Group B fixture, Kerala managed to enter the final eight. Furthermore, the dream run continued as a star-studded Gujarat side was also made to bite the dust in a low scoring but high-voltage quarter-final clash.
The veteran Jalaj Saxena was instrumental in turning the team's fortunes around. Not only did he score the runs while playing the sheet anchor's role to perfection, but also contributed with the ball and picked up wickets during crucial junctures. In 9 matches this season, the 32-year-old scored 551 runs at an average of just a shade under 40 with 2 centuries and as many half centuries.
Also, the team's bowling attack took a giant leap. Traditionally, spinners have formed the heart of Kerala's bowling line-up, but this year it was different. Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier spearheaded the pace attack, picking up wickets at regular intervals.
A game against Bengal during the group stages of the tournament saw Warrier and Thampi making the batters from Bengal hop and jump on a green-top at the Eden Gardens. The wicket had grass all over it. Also, Bengal's bowling line-up comprising Mohammad Shami, Ashok Dinda, and Ishan Porel had the ability to dismantle any given batting line-up.
Little did they know that the move would backfire. Warrier and Thampi made merry on a green-top wicket at the Eden Gardens as the batsmen were seen running for cover. Both the bowlers bowled their hearts out in long spells throughout the course of the tournament.
Consistency is the key going forward
For a long time, the team from Kerala lacked consistency and cohesion. There was no dearth of talent, but a severe lack of consistency and team spirit meant that the team could not come together as one integrated unit. Earlier, the batsmen lacked the patience to go out there and score big whereas the bowlers lacked the urgency to pick up wickets. But since Whatmore's arrival, things are beginning to change for the better.
Despite showcasing a lot of promise this year around, the team from India's far south has a lot of issues to address. A comprehensive defeat against Vidarbha in the semi-final meant that Kerala couldn’t book a place in the tournament’s final. There are quite a few chinks in the armor that need to be addressed before the next season begins.
The splendor may have faded after they came down crashing against a formidable side from Vidarbha. Umesh Yadav wreaked havoc and returned with match figures of 12/79, but the team from Kerala can take a lot of heart from the fact that they have finally been able to punch well above their weights despite having limited resources at their disposal.