The game is really looking up in Kerala

Sujith Somasunder... the Kerala coach has done wonders with the team.-PICS: RANJITH PERALAM

Kerala’s performance in the recent Ranji season was laudable. The team also did well in the Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali tournaments. By P.K. Ajith Kumar.

As the sun light started fading at the Y. S. Raja Reddy Stadium in Kadapa, in Andhara Pradesh, on the New Year’s Day, V. A. Jagadeesh and Robert Fernandez looked calm and composed in the middle. Yes, their team still required another 17 runs, but they were confident. After all, one more over was still to be bowled. Yes, you read it right: ONE over.

Before terming it impossible, consider this: they had scored 20 runs in the previous over and 192 for six from 24 overs; Jagadeesh was batting on 70 from 61 balls, while Robert was on 27 off 12 balls and a place in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals was dangling right in front of their eyes. And stranger things have happened in cricket. As they waited for the final over, the two Kerala batsmen were determined to whack their way to what surely should be one of the most famous wins in first class cricket.

But, that final over was never bowled, as the umpires deemed the light was good enough only for a spinner and Andhra was, quite understandably, willing to use only a pace bowler. The batsmen were ready to face even Dale Steyn, but the umpires seemed to care more for the batsmen’s safety than they themselves did. Thus, Kerala failed to qualify, finishing third in the Group ‘C’, behind Services and Jharkhand.

But that stunningly audacious, albeit unsuccessful, chase at Kadapa defined Kerala’s transformation as a cricket team this season. A transformation that was stunning as the chase.

Kerala beat Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad and Punjab within the space of a few weeks as the team reached the semifinals of the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament and almost made it to the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy Twenty20 championship. And not so long ago, Kerala was a Cinderella of Indian cricket. Cinderella though finally seems to have found the glass slipper.

Suddenly, everyone is taking Kerala seriously, especially in the shorter formats of the game. “Nobody considers us as pushovers anymore,” says Sachin Baby, who led Kerala to the South Zone runner-up spot in both the one-day and Twenty20 tournaments. “We could feel the change in the way how big teams see us these days.”

The biggest change is in Kerala’s attitude. While the earlier Kerala teams were almost too diffident to win — one can recall, watching the team squandering chances of victory by playing negative, overcautious and unimaginative cricket in two successive matches in the Ranji Trophy tournament two years ago — this young side is daring and fights back with steely resolve.

And there is a discernible improvement in skills and application, especially in batting. Till a year ago, there normally used to be just a couple of hundreds for Kerala in the entire Ranji Trophy. But this year there were 11 hundreds by Kerala’s frontline batsmen. Four of them were by Jagadeesh, the diminutive opener who was batting as if in a dream. He scored 871 runs at 72.58 and was the fifth highest scorer in the Ranji Trophy for the season.

He was the fifth highest run-getter in the one-dayers and Twenty20 as well. At No. 4 in the one-day list of all-India batting honours was Sachin Baby and at No. 6 was Rohan Prem. Never has Kerala batted better. And the man chiefly responsible for that is former Indian opener Sujith Somasunder, who took over as the team’s coach this season.

“When I began my stint as the Kerala coach, I knew that the team had a few issues with its batting,” says Sujith. “Besides making slight adjustments to the batsmen’s technique, I also made them understand the importance of building innings and partnerships.”

V. A. Jagadeesh... a phenomenal run with the bat in the Ranji season.-

Sujith’s background in sports psychology also helped the team. As did his tough stance when it came to the team selection. He wanted to play Sandeep Warrier, who is among the most promising pace bowlers in the country today, and C.P. Shahid, the left-arm spinner who had virtually given up hopes of playing first class cricket. Shahid finished the season with 26 wickets from five matches; Sandeep scalped 24, also from five games. Sandeep has since been signed up by Royal Challengers Bangalore and is among the seven players recruited from Kerala for this year’s IPL.

“Even more players, like Rohan and Jagadeesh, deserve chances in the IPL,” says Sujith. “I am sure Kerala’s cricketers would be in the focus more often in the future. Sandeep is definitely an India prospect, especially in the longer version.”

In Sandeep and S. Sreesanth, Kerala could boast one of the finest new ball attacks in the country. And there are more pace bowling options for Kerala, with the likes of Prasanth Parameswaran, Manu Krishnan, P. U. Anthaf and N. Niyas.

Ram Mohan, former Ranji player and coach of Sandeep and Manu, says this is the best Kerala team he has ever seen. “I have been following Kerala cricket for three decades and I haven’t come across a team that is as good in all the formats and has this much depth and spirit,” he says. “We have to give credit to Sujith for that. He has been able to instil confidence in the players, who now know they would be there in team in the next match in spite of a lean run. That wasn’t the case earlier in Kerala cricket.”

With academies in every district, quality cricket grounds coming up right across the State and enough exposure and practice sessions for players in different age groups, things have never looked better for the sport in Kerala.

And the average age of the Kerala team that scared Andhra at Kadapa was 25.27. The future surely looks bright and sunny for Kerala cricket.