After flying high in the past two seasons it was a harsh reality check for Kerala in the Ranji Trophy this time around. The team, which started under Sachin Baby and ended with Jalaj Saxena at the helm, was relegated to Elite Group C. Kerala, who have completed their fixtures, are lying in 17th place in the 18-team Elite Group A and B with the two-bottom placed sides being relegated to Group C.
Kerala could manage only one win – against Punjab – from their eight matches and finished with just 10 points. The team suffered five losses, while two games ended in draws.
Kerala began their campaign promisingly as they enforced follow-on against Delhi at home. However, the bowlers could not force a win as Kunal Chandela and Nitish Rana took Delhi to safe shores.
One session of poor batting cost them the next game against Bengal. The visitors avenged their defeat at Eden Gardens last season as their spinners set up the win on a slow-turner at the St Xavier's College Ground at Thumba.
The next game against Gujarat at Surat was played on a track which assisted the pacers throughout the match. Kerala were blown away on the opening day as they were bundled out for 70 in reply to the home side's 127. Though the pacers – Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier – hit back, Kerala let Gujarat off the hook as No. 10 Chintan Gaja struck a breezy unbeaten 50 to set them a stiff target of 268. Despite a brilliant knock by Sanju Samson (78), Kerala fell short by 90 runs.
The next outing at Hyderabad against a struggling home side saw Sachin opting to bat under overcast skies on winning the toss. The decision backfired big time as Kerala lasted just 51.1 overs and were shot out for 164 in the first innings. This defeat proved to be a big setback in their efforts to reach the quarterfinals.
The thrilling win against Punjab at home was followed by crushing defeats at the hands of Rajasthan and Andhra. The final group fixture against holders Vidarbha ended in a draw after the last two day’s play was washed out when Kerala looked good to gain the first innings lead.
The absence of key batsman Sanju and pace spearhead Sandeep hurt Kerala badly. Sanju could play in just two games as he was away on national duty, while Sandeep took the field in four games as he was part of the India 'A' team which toured New Zealand.
Batting led to Kerala’s downfall. The Kerala batters lacked application and the will to fight it out. Many of the matches were lost on the opening day itself and as many as five games ended on or before the third day.
Sachin and head coach Dav Whatmore’s experiment to go in with different batting combinations too did not help the team’s cause. The team was a pale shadow of the outfit which made it to the semifinals of the premier domestic competition for the first time last season. Kerala had qualified the quarterfinals the year before that.
Outstation professional Robin Uthappa too failed to make much of an impression after a hundred against Delhi.
Sachin, Saxena and Vishnu Vinod were the lone players to feature in all eight of Kerala's fixtures. Salman Nizar was the highest run-getter with a tally of 337 from seven matches. Though Sachin (330) and Uthappa (328) too scored more than 300 runs, the two experienced batsmen failed to fire consistently.
Saxena, who was handed the captaincy in their penultimate match against Andhra, was the pick of the bowlers with 40 scalps, but his batting was a big letdown.
Medium-pacer M D Nidheesh grabbed the most of the chances that came his way as he picked up 17 wickets from four matches, while Basil Thampi accounted for 14 from five matches.
The Kerala Cricket Association (KCA)'s decision to play all four home matches on a turner at Thumba did not yield the desired results. Barring Saxena, other Kerala spinners such as K S Monish, Sijomon Joseph and Akshay Chandran disappointed while leggie S Midhun and offie Vinoop Manoharan played just one match.
In hindsight Kerala would have been better off playing a few matches at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad which would have brought their pacers into play.
It would be interesting to see whether Whatmore will continue after such a disastrous season. It was a campaign in which he failed to inspire the team and the KCA would have some hard decisions to make.