Having fractured a finger on his right hand while batting early on the opening day and ruled out for the rest of the season, Sanju Samson saw fortunes swing between two sides in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy quarter-final clash from the dressing room of the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad. With Kerala 163 for 9 in their second innings on a really challenging pitch late on the second day, Samson decided to join a set Jalaj Saxena in the middle.
The last-wicket pair’s 17-minute vigil for eight runs mattered little in the final analysis as the pace duo of Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier dismissed Gujarat for 81 within two sessions in their chase of 195. But Samson’s courageous act symbolised the overall character of a team willing to go that extra distance with a maiden Ranji Trophy semi-final spot in sight. Kerala had missed this chance last season after a batting collapse against Vidarbha in the quarter-final and did not want the script to be repeated.
“On that pitch, 150 was a really good score. So, each and every run mattered,” Samson tells Firstpost. “Cricket is a very funny game. You may win or lose by one run. So, I thought if I go out and get five to ten runs partnership then it will help my team set a decent target. I just went out and did my part.”
Players doing their part is the theme around which the Sachin Baby-led Kerala have a made a long-standing dream come true. “It is a historical moment in Kerala cricket,” an emotional Tinu Yohannan, the state’s first international cricketer, tells Firstpost. “It is a huge moment when it comes to everyone who has played for Kerala or aspired to play for Kerala. It is a tremendous achievement.”
Kerala’s sporting culture is among the best in the country. PT Usha, IM Vijayan and Sreejesh are just tips of the iceberg, but for a long time cricket lacked direction. The legendary Balan Pandit, B Ramprakash, KN Ananthpadmanabhan, who may have played for India had Anil Kumble not been his contemporary, Ajay Kudua (famously known as Cochin Sachin), Sreekumar Nair, Yohannan and S Sreesanth among others impressed, but as a unit, Kerala never threatened the opposition. Desperate to change their fortunes, Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) took proactive steps ahead of the 2014-15 season.
Chandrakant Pandit, who understands the dynamics of Indian domestic cricket like very few, was made the cricket director, Sairaj Bahutule was roped in as coach and Yohannan returned from Chennai to lay the foundation.
Academies were set up to disallow young talents from slipping through the net, district level coaches were empowered and there was an increased focus on local matches and camps. More importantly, the vision was not just restriced to men’s cricket. The state’s women’s cricket structure is among the best in the country. So, Kerala Women winning the Under-23 Twenty20 tournament last season or the men qualifying for the Ranji semifinal this season is not an overnight story, but a culmination of a cricketing revolution set in motion few years back under the leadership of Pandit, who is currently Vidarbha’s coach.
“2014 was a milestone year when these seeds started germinating. That’s when the whole vision was put in place. Along with improving infrastructure facilities, our cricket also has to improve to reach the best level it can in the country by 2020,” explains Yohannan. “Under-19 and Under-23 boys were given enough chances right from district level. Many of the boys who came through that process and were invested on for years were a part of this team that won the quarter-final.”
The new crop of cricketers were much different than their predecessors. Spotlight excited them as they seeked more opportunities. It helped that someone like Samson got a chance to mingle with Rahul Dravid at Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League. He was possibly the first teenager from the state to be exposed to international standards.
“From the time I played for the senior Kerala team in 2011, I had a dream. Slowly each one of us started believing in that and started saying it to teammates and everyone else,” Samson looks back. “Slowly but steadily the belief in ourselves and in our potential became really big, and we also got good people around us who enabled us to achieve the goals. We are almost there now.”
Not that KCA was free of problems. Players were not always happy, there were rumours of factions within the team, captains were changed regularly and sometimes enthusiasm did not match the intent, but the decision makers kept trying. Various professional players were signed up before they settled on Saxena and KB Arun Karthik. Saxena’s role this season has been particularly crucial. He heads the team’s batting charts with 537 runs and his 28 wickets puts him behind Warrier and Thampi in the bowling list. Karthik, of course, knows what it is to lift an underdog side to the top, having been a key member of the unfancied Assam side that made it to the 2015-16 Ranji semifinals.
“Apart from being a good allrounder, Jalaj Saxena has a very good cricket sense. He puts in a lot of new ideas with respect to team combination, situations we need to create on the field and batting order,” Samson says of the impact that the senior has had on the team in the last three seasons. “Arun Karthik is also a gem of a person. His suggestions are always helpful.”
The appointment of Dav Whatmore as coach and Rajesh Chauhan as the strength and conditioning coach last season was another big step. Whatmore’s international credentials need no introduction with one World Cup and one Under-19 World Cup in his kitty. It could have been easy for him to be demanding. Instead, he adapted to the local culture and has played the dual role of a friend and stern headmaster.
Kerala’s dressing room is notriously known for factionalism, but he has broken the barriers as was evident in the dropping of the veteran VA Jagadeesh for the quarter-final. It was delightful to see the team’s most experienced player carry drinks and advice for the batsmen with a smile on his face – a clear sign of a happy unit.
“We try to create an enviornment where we are all equal. I just treat them as adults, give them a lot of freedom and space to do well and to fail. They appreciate that,” Whatmore says. “They know when they have done wrong and they are told when they do badly. They get plenty of praise when they do well. So, it is a happy enviornment that is prospering within.”
Samson, not always KCA’s favourite child, concedes that differences between the players have been put aside and points at the rise in the number of performers compared to previous seasons. “When you play for long in any team, there are bound to be differences, but it is unfortunate that things came out in the media,” Samson says. “But we came back well within months and now all are one as a unit and want to win matches for Kerala. This season we have played on all kind of surfaces, and we have two bowlers with 30-plus wickets and another bowler who is almost there. We also have four batsmen with 40-plus average and two others close to it. So, we have six to seven players putting up match-winning performances.”
This consistency can be directly attributed to better fitness levels. Biju George, possibly the most popular cricket coach from the state who is now with India Women’s team, noted on his Facebook page that Chauhan has helped in the “improvement and maintenance of fitness level (of the players, which) reflects in the rise of fielding standards and the ability to dominate the last sessions and fourth day proceedings.”
No one stands for this transformation better than Warrier and Thampi, who have bowled with real good pace and accuracy for a combined tally of 72 wickets in 517 overs. They shared 16 wickets between them against Gujarat.
“Thampi has done a good job, and he is still developing,” Whatmore shares. “A lot of people thought that he is a limited-overs bowler, but now he is bowling two or three spells and also performing very well over longer spells each time he comes to bowl. He is bowling seven to eight overs in each spell, something a lot of people thought he cannot do.”
Yohannan credits a clearer thought process for Warrier’s success. “He is the leader the pack. He has been in the circuit for seven to eight years and has always showed promise to play at the highest level. This year the difference is in his mental make up. His eagerness to play for India has always put that extra pressure on him to perform, but now he is much more relaxed, composed and is comfortable with his bowling. He knows his strengths and weakenesses and how to get wickets.”
After their quarter-final defeat last season, Whatmore, now only the third foreign coach to take a team to the Ranji semifinals after Intikhab Alam (Punjab) and David Andrews (Maharashtra), felt that the players “deserved a pat on the back” for creating history. Kerala had never made it that far since their first-class debut in 1957-58. This season, Whatmore says, they deserve “two pats” for taking yet another step forward.
Samson believes the extra step has been possible because of the learnings from the last season. “We have almost the same team playing this time, the players have grown a bit more and become a bit more professional in their approach and they know how to handle pressure situations.”
The experience came in handy when it mattered the most. Kerala started the season well, but slipped after that and needed to win the last league game against Himachal Pradesh. Set a target of 297 on the final day, Kerala, who have never scored 300 in the fourth innings, won with five wickets in hand and became the only team from Group B to qualify for the quarter-finals. That they recorded their highest successful chase without Saxena and Karthik in the team was triumph of the system. “It was very much a home grown Kerala team that won that match,” Whatmore points out. “That added to the confidence of the boys.”
Kerala now have a chance to earn ‘three pats’ when they most likely take on Vidarbha in the semifinal – a clash that will once again bring them face to face with Pandit, the man who set this journey. Samson believes they are better prepared because the momentum is with them. From KCA’s perspective, the focus has already shifted to the next goal.
“We have now touched the milestone, but the challenge is to stay there and keep performing,” Yohannan, who now heads the association’s High Performance Centre, spells out the future. “For that we need to keep improving our bench strength by inducing quality in our Under-16 and Under-19 cricketers. Once that happens at the grassroots, then there will automatically be consistency at the top level.”