Kerala needed an outright win to stake its claim for a spot in the quarterfinals of the Ranji Trophy. While Karnataka, Services and Chhattisgarh did Kerala a favour by beating Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Goa – who were also in contention for a last-eight berth in Group C – the Sijomon Joseph-led side stumbled at the last hurdle against bottom-placed Pondicherry.
“We knew these conditions will not favour us – it is going to be a flat track. We had to play our best cricket to win against Pondicherry. It was going to be challenging to get them all out twice in these conditions,” Kerala head coach Tinu Yohannan said on Friday.
Pondicherry lost only 15 wickets and took the first-innings lead before the teams shook hands on a draw in the final session on Friday. Kerala had its tail up in the morning on the opening day when Basil Thampi and M.D. Nidheesh shook Pondicherry with two wickets in the first two overs before Paras Dogra and Arun Karthick took the game away with a 172-run partnership for the fourth wicket.
“On any flat pitch, the fast-bowlers are going to pick wickets. In the morning of the first day there was a bit of dampness on the wicket and we got three early wickets... But we could have used the conditions better,” Yohannan added.
There were eyebrows raised when medium-pacer Vishweshar Suresh was handed his maiden cap for the must-win game and replaced off-spinner Vaisakh Chandran, Kerala’s second-highest wicket-taker in the red-ball season. However, the debutant had a rough initiation to First Class cricket as he bowled two consecutive no-balls to kickstart his career and had overstepped 12 times by the end of the match.
“We chose Vishweshar because we needed that third medium-pace option. Unfortunately, he could not perform in the first innings. It’s important to get back to the basics and preparation. He has been doing really well in the domestic circuit and practice sessions. We favoured him ahead of Basil N.P. and Fazil Fanoos, who had more experience than him. But we can’t control these things (no-balls). It can be nerves or lack of preparedness,” the coach said.
While the bowling, and the pace department in particular, has been lacklustre, the batting too has let the team down on several occasions. Amid concerns of an inconsistent top-order, Rohan Kunnummal’s indifferent form this season has stood out.
The flamboyant right-handed opener was Kerala’s top-scorer in Ranji Trophy 2021-22, scoring 417 runs in four innings. He carried his form into the Duleep Trophy, where he emerged as the second-highest run-scorer and earned his maiden India A call-up for the Bangladesh tour in November.
“If you look at our top-order, they didn’t do much, especially Rohan Kunnummal and P. Rahul, who were in exceptional form last season. They could not perform well this season and that has let us down. In most of the games, we lost early wickets and then Sachin [Baby] came and played brilliant knocks.
“I think they went wrong in the preparation part. They’re coming from white-ball cricket. Especially Rohan, he has played a lot of white-ball cricket coming into the red-ball season. He then went to Bangladesh for the India A tour. I think there was a lot of fatigue setting in him. He took two games off to get fresh again and then he could not get back his form,” Yohannan lamented.
Kerala’s travails at the top of the order continued against Pondicherry as it lost its top three for 71, following which the middle-order went into a shell. While Sachin Baby, Salman Nizar, Akshay Chandran, and Joseph steadied Kerala, they could not score at a quick rate and make a bid for an outright win.
“They (batters) were aggressive before we lost three wickets. If you see the way the first two wickets fell, both of them (Kunnummal and Rahul) went for shots outside off-stump and succumbed. We needed better application in these conditions. We were always thinking of going at three or four runs per over initially but on the morning of the third day, Pondicherry bowled exceptional spells... It was difficult to rotate strike. We were giving them instructions to get at least three runs per over but they were not able to because of the areas they were bowling in. It was not easy to even step out because of the speed at which Sagar Udeshi was bowling,” the coach admitted.
With an attacking approach with the bat lacking, Kerala didn’t have skipper Sanju Samson, who is recovering from injury at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), to turn to. Earlier in the tournament against Rajasthan, Kerala had opted to chase down 395 in less than a day instead of settling for a draw. Samson had struck a 53-ball 69 in the game before his dismissal threatened a collapse and Sachin Baby had to rush into rescue mode again.
“He (Samson) was a big miss after the first three games. His presence made a big difference, especially his leadership role. He made a tremendous difference, especially in decision-making and the way he was getting things out from the bowling unit. That was something that was lacking after he left,” Yohannan said.
Though Kerala has been consistently making it to the knockouts in white-ball cricket for the past two seasons, a Ranji Trophy quarterfinals spot has eluded the team since 2018-19 and Yohannan believes red-ball cricket must be prioritised.
“We need time and more planning from the management side. More focus is going into white-ball cricket now. Red-ball cricket should be given priority,” he said.
However, all is not gloom and doom as Yohannan sees positives in a disappointing campaign that has been salvaged to an extent by the individual brilliance of Sachin Baby and Jalaj Saxena, Kerala’s top run-scorer and wicket-taker in the tournament, respectively.
“Jalaj Saxena and Sachin Baby, our senior pros in red-ball cricket, have been exceptional. Rohan Prem, making a comeback, is also amongst runs. Sanju’s leadership is also a big positive in the last three years. It is very encouraging to see that he is stepping up and he is very keen and taking initiative to get Kerala to greater heights.”