Ranji Trophy quarterfinals: Captains exude confidence

Leaving its critics surprised, Kerala has stormed into the quarterfinals of the Ranji Trophy for the first time.

"This time, all the boys have played exceptionally well,” says Kerala captain Sachin Baby.   -  Special Arrangement

When the Ranji Trophy began in the first week of October, not many were convinced of Kerala’s chances. After all, being a Plate-division side all the while, the Southern State team did not have much to offer on plate, except a few individual performances as starters. But as a collective unit, it could never make for a full-course meal.

But then, in a game of glorious uncertainties — that cricket is — scripts change thick and fast. So, what looked like a mission impossible even a couple of months back, has suddenly turned into a reality. Leaving its critics surprised, Kerala has stormed into the quarterfinals of the Ranji Trophy for the first time.

Like many in the cricketing fraternity, this joyride has also made Kerala captain Sachin Baby realise that hardwork and determination do pay off. “We badly wanted to be in the elite group, because as a Plate side, our performances were not noticed. We have had individual performances, but as a team, things did not go well earlier. But this time, all the boys have played exceptionally well,” Baby tells Sportstar on Friday.

Ranji Trophy: Who plays who in quarterfinals

In the quarterfinals, which begin on December 7, Kerala will square off against Vidarbha — which has also dodged past the odds to reach the last-eight stage — in Surat. And, the Kerala skipper feels that his side has enough firepower to tackle the Vidarbha challenge. “All the boys have stepped up this time, and that is a very positive sign,” Baby says, making it clear that the team has been ‘lucky to have a coach’ like Dav Whatmore. “The team is brimming with confidence and that is exciting news ahead of the quarterfinals,” Baby says.

But then, the Kerala side is wary of Vidarbha, which has played reasonably well this time around. “Interestingly, Kerala is coached by Chandrakant Pandit, who had coached Kerala in the past. He has a fair idea about our team, and that may help them prepare better against us,” Baby says.

There is, however, enough substance in Baby’s statements, as Vidarbha skipper, Faiz Fazal, too, admits that his team has a plan in store for Kerala. “They (Kerala) are a balanced side, and so are we. As a team, we are trying to win the quarterfinal and for that we are developing ourselves mentally and tactically,” Fazal tells Sportstar.

Taking lessons from its previous outings, the Vidarbha side has topped group D this time, with 31 points from six games. It won four games and drew two, and this envious track record is keeping the side motivated. “We won three away games and that too against teams like Bengal and Punjab. So, playing at a neutral venue will not be a matter of concern for us,” Fazal says, quickly adding: “We are not taking any pressure, and are trying to remain positive. That should be the right approach.”

In the last few editions of the Ranji Trophy, batting has been a major area of concern for the Vidarbha side, but this time, it has rectified the errors and shown consistency. “We have scored 400-plus runs in almost each and every game, and that is certainly a big positive. Our spinners and seamers are also in great form, and we would like to keep it like that,” Fazal says, making it clear that so far, the team does not have any injury woes.

If both Kerala and Vidarbha are out to prove a point, a much-experienced Madhya Pradesh is taking it slow and steady ahead of its quarterfinal clash against heavyweight Delhi. In Vijayawada, the conditions will be different for both the sides, but Madhya Pradesh skipper Devendra Bundela is not keen on thinking too much about it. “We treated our last match (against Odisha) like a quarterfinal, so we are ready for the big challenge,” a confident Bundela says, adding: “Both the teams will have to adjust to the conditions and play accordingly. That’s the thing.”

The vastly experienced skipper is happy with the way his team has bounced back in the tournament after a ‘not so good start’ to the tournament. “All the players fought hard and that’s why we could top the group despite not getting off to a good start. So, with momentum on our side, things should go our way,” says Bundela.

Madhya Pradesh skipper Devendra Bundela is happy with the way his team has bounced back in the tournament.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

This edition of the tournament has seen youngster Aryaman Vikram Birla — son of business tycoon Kumar Mangalam Birla — make his debut in the Ranji Trophy side, and Bundela is excited about it. “These boys have done extremely well at the U-23 level, and deserve more opportunities. With a balance of old and new boys, we are confident of a good show in the quarters,” Bundela says.

Like Kerala and Vidarbha, Madhya Pradesh, too, does not have any injury scare in the team.

Another heavyweight Bengal, too, is gearing up for a tough quarterfinal challenge against defending champion Gujarat. Ahead of its game at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur, Bengal skipper Manoj Tiwary is relieved because there are no injury scares in the team.

And with a free mind, his focus is to tame the defending champion. “Quarterfinals are always challenging because there is a pressure of getting knocked out of the tournament. That pressure keeps revolving in the team, but that’s the beauty of a quarterfinal game,” Tiwary tells Sportstar from Kolkata.

To ensure that the boys don’t reel under pressure, the captain and the coach, Sairaj Bahutule, are extremely careful. “That’s the responsibility of a coach and the captain to make sure that nobody feels the pressure, and nobody is thinking about things that are not in our control. We want to focus on the areas that are in our control  — both on and off the field. We will go ahead and play the knockout stage. That has been our focus ever since Sairaj Bahutule has taken over as the coach,” Tiwary says.

Bengal has concentrated on the work ethics and the mental preparation ahead of the big ticket match. “We have also learnt how to address certain situations. Overall, we are focused on preparing to our strength. We do a lot of video analysis of our opponents and based on that, our bowling plans are set and then decide on how to execute those plans,” the skipper points out.

Facing Gujarat is a challenge, and Tiwary feels that his Gujarat counterpart Parthiv Patel could well make the difference. “With Parthiv leading the side, it makes a lot of difference. He is an experienced guy and he has got a tremendous knowledge of the game that helps in his captaincy. I have felt that while watching Gujarat’s games. We are looking forward to playing a tough game, because if you want to be a champion, you have to play tough opponents.”

Despite a good start, Bengal suffered a defeat against Vidarbha at its home venue in Kalyani, but then, it bounced back in style, beating Punjab and Goa outright. “We did not play well against Vidarbha because we failed to execute the batting and bowling plans in that particular game. Such things happen with most of the teams, where one odd game crops up in middle of a good season. We knew we had to get full points against Punjab, and we had beaten them at a neutral venue last season, so that helped us,” Tiwary says, adding: “That shows the character of the players. It is good to see that the newcomers are taking responsibilities and are coming up with performances that the team is looking forward to. We look forward to execute our plans.”

With the skippers looking optimistic, the stage is set for some mouth-watering cricket.

(This is the First Part of the article. Part Two will be published tomorrow)

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