Ranji Trophy: Confident Kerala takes on defending champion Gujarat

Gujarat won the Ranji Trophy last season, beating Mumbai in the final. Its title defence begins on Saturday, against Kerala, which arrived here in a rather confident frame of mind after defeating last season’s semifinalist Jharkhand at Thiruvananthapuram.

Kerala bowling coach Tinu Yohannan (from left), coach Dav Whatmore, captain Sachin Baby and batsman Rohan Prem at Nandiad ahead of the Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat.   -  P.K. AJITH KUMAR

When this bustling town, sandwiched between Ahmedabad and Anand, last hosted a first-class match, cricket wasn’t this popular in the country. That was in 1981, two years before Kapil Dev’s men won the World Cup and changed the sporting destiny of a nation.

Four players from that Indian team had played in the Ranji Trophy match at the Jethabhai Jhaverbhai College of Science Ground here. Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri and Balwinder Singh Sandhu were all part of a star-studded Mumbai – it was called Bombay then – which crushed the host by an innings and 24 runs.

Gujarat has come a long way since then.

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It won the Ranji Trophy last season, beating Mumbai in the final. Its title defence begins on Saturday, against Kerala, which arrived here in a rather confident frame of mind after defeating last season’s semifinalist Jharkhand at Thiruvananthapuram.

It was the best start Kerala has had to its Ranji campaign for a decade; the last time it won its opening fixture was in 2007-08. “It was nice to see our hard work prior to the season getting paid off against Jharkhand,” coach Dav Whatmore said. “I thought the boys bowled particularly well.”

One of those bowlers, left-arm spinner S. Monish, will have to miss this match after injuring his left knee during a training session. Uncapped off-spinner Sijomon Joseph has been brought in as a replacement.

With Jalaj Saxena, who took 11 wickets with his off-spin in the last match, and left-armer Akshay Chandran, Kerala has enough spinning options still, while Sandeep Warrier is expected to provide a breakthrough with his pace and swing. For runs, the team will look mainly up to Sanju Samson, captain Sachin Baby and Rohan Prem.

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Gujarat boasts a more formidable batting line-up that includes the prolific Priyank Panchal, Manprit Juneja, Samit Gohil and captain Parthiv Patel, who has kept the wicket for India in 23 matches. The bowling has been further bolstered by the singing up of leg-spinner Piyush Chawla.

“We have good medium-pacers too, like R.P. Singh and Rush Kalaria,” said Gujarat’s coach Vijay Patil. “We are not taking Kerala lightly, especially after their win against Jharkhand.”

In the only match the two sides met in the Ranji Trophy before, Kerala was the winner, by nine wickets, at Surat in 2007.

The teams (from):

Kerala: Sachin Baby (captain), Sanju V. Samson, Rohan Prem, Arun Karthik, Jalaj Saxena, Mohammed Azharuddeen (wicket-keeper), Akshay Chandran, Nikhilesh Surendran, Sandeep Warrier, M.D. Nidheesh, Vinod Kumar, P. Rahul, Vishnu Vinod, K.M. Asif and Sijomon Joseph.

Gujarat: Parthiv Patel (captain & wicket-keeper), Rujul Bhatt, Samit Gohil, Manprit Juneja, Chirag Gandhi, Dhruv Raval, Mehul Patel, R.P. Singh, Priyank Panchal, Piyush Chawla, Hardik Patel, Bhargav Merai, Ishwar Chaudhary, Chintan Gaja, Rush Kalaria and Sidharth Desai.

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