For its followers, Kerala’s senior cricket team has been an annual disappointment for the last several years. The team has never been short of talent. However, dubious selection policies, unimaginative and often overly defensive coaching, an uncanny knack to shoot itself in the foot by doctoring pitches and a refusal to trust in its main strength of pace bowling have all meant that Kerala did not progress beyond the preliminary stage of the Ranji Trophy even once during the last decade and a half. To that list, you could also add the sacking of the coach midway through the Ranji tournament last season.

The Kerala Cricket Association, however, has somewhat made up for that act by roping in Dav Whatmore as coach for the new season. His appointment has in fact raised hopes of a turnaround. The man who guided Sri Lanka to the World-Cup triumph in 1996 is easily the biggest name ever to coach Kerala.

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The Sri Lankan-born Australian’s first task would be to help the team finish first or second in Group B. He might find taking the Lankans to glory at Lahore 21 years ago was probably an easier job. For, Kerala has to fight it out with a team that won the Ranji Trophy last year (Gujarat), a semifinalist (Jharkhand) and a quarterfinalist (Haryana), not to mention a former champion (Rajasthan).

Not that Kerala is incapable of posing a strong challenge to those formidable rivals. This team, in fact, is good enough to turn the table on each of those sides, especially under a seasoned coach like Whatmore.

Kerala, however, would be missing the services of the new pace sensation Basil Thampi for the first two matches, as he has joined the India A squad for the ODI series against the touring New Zealand A. The absence of a more confident Thampi might hurt Kerala, but there is still enough fire in the pace bowling department that comprises, among others, Sandeep Warrier, M.D. Nidheesh, who has earned his rightful place back, and K.M. Asif, the new lad about whom Australian legend Jeff Thomson had spoken highly to this writer.

In men like left-armer S. Monish, Kerala has dependable spinners too. As for batting, much is expected of the gifted Sanju Samson, who would be keener than ever before to show his skills to the national selectors, Rohan Prem, skipper Sachin Baby, Jalaj Saxena and the new signing Arun Karthik. Runs could also come from the hard-hitting pair of Vishnu Vinod and wicket-keeper Mohammed Azharuddeen, the highly promising Salman Nizar, the uncapped P. Rahul and spinning allrounder Akshay Chandran.

X Factor:

Sandeep Warrier: He may have been overshadowed by the sudden rise of fellow-paceman Basil Thampi, the Emerging Player of the latest IPL, but he is no less talented. The former India Under-23 player’s strikes with the new ball could be crucial in Kerala’s campaign. He is capable of winning Ranji matches on his own with his pace and swing.

Kerala’s fixtures:

Jharkhand, October 6-9, Thiruvananthapuram; Gujarat, October 14-17, Nadiad; Rajasthan, October 24-27, Thiruvananthapuram; Jammu & Kashmir, November 1-4, venue to be announced; Saurashtra, November 17-20, Thiruvananthapuram; Haryana, November 25-28, Lahli.

Last year’s performance: Finished fifth in Group C.