In a bid to secure its third-ever Ranji Trophy quarterfinals spot, Kerala will fancy its chances when it takes on bottom-placed Pondicherry in a must-win game here at the Siechem Stadium from Tuesday.
As the league stage heads down the home stretch to the quarterfinals, only an outright win will keep Kerala alive in a four-way race with Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Goa for the only vacant last-eight spot in the group. However, Kerala’s shock defeat to Goa and its draws, after conceding the first-innings advantage, against Rajasthan and Karnataka have ensured it no longer has its fate in its hands.
Even in the case of an outright win against Pondicherry, Kerala will hope Jharkhand, placed second with 23 points, doesn’t pull off an upset win over table-topper Karnataka, which has already sealed its quarterfinals berth.
If Jharkhand ekes out a draw, after taking the first-innings lead, Kerala will need to push for its first victory by bonus point of the season.
Though the mathematics of qualification is slightly daunting, the task at hand is more straightforward. After four home games on the trot, Kerala will face a team fighting against impending relegation in conditions likely to aid spin-bowling. That Pondicherry has also conceded three bonus points in six games this season will give Kerala the edge in the larger context of the quarterfinals battle.
While Kerala is placed third in Group C with 20 points, its star performers Jalaj Saxena and Sachin Baby are first and second in the bowling and batting charts, respectively.
With 45 scalps at an average of under 18, Saxena has picked almost as many wickets as the rest of the Kerala bowlers combined (53). While the spin trio of Saxena, captain Sijomon Joseph and Vaisakh Chandran was blunted by Karnataka in its previous outing, Pondicherry is unlikely to pose a stern challenge.
The host, from the ignominy of 37 all out in its first game against Chhattisgarh to its most recent 10-wicket defeat to Jharkhand, has been single-handedly propped up by wicketkeeper Arun Karthik in the batting department.
Crisis man Baby, with 791 runs at average in excess of 87, will lead the charge in neutralizing the spin threat posed by the host’s left-arm orthodox pair of Sagar Udeshi and Ankit Sharma. The duo has 61 wickets between them, and was the architect of Pondicherry’s stunning win over Goa – its first ever in the Elite division of Ranji Trophy. The matchups will favour Kerala as its other in-form batter, Rohan Prem, is also a southpaw.
However, the opening pair of P. Rahul and Rohan Kunnummal has lacked consistency. Both batters scored a duck each against Karnataka, forcing Baby into rescue mode again. In the absence of Sanju Samson, who is recovering from injury, the top-order will need to fire in unison if Kerala is to throw down the gauntlet for the quarterfinals and beyond.