Stan Rayan

KOCHI: Just before the Kerala cricket team left Kochi for its Ranji Plate League campaign a few weeks ago, there were many who felt that it was the weakest team to leave the State’s shores in many years.

For the first time in five years, Kerala was without its professional ‘guest’ players, the side was playing four of its five matches away from home and the line-up did not inspire much confidence.

“Our two guest players have done all the heavy work the last few years, life’s going to be very tough now,” one remembers the new coach Vedam Hariharan saying. “It’s now time for the youngsters to stand up to be counted.” Surprisingly, and happily too, the team stunned everyone by marching to the semifinals. True, there were hiccups along the way, a few miscalculations too, but in the end, the young soldiers rose to the occasion nicely.

The youngsters, like Rohan Prem, S. Anish, P. Prasanth and Raiphy Vincent Gomez have produced sparkling performances while seniors Sreekumar Nair and Sony Cheruvathur have tapped some previously unknown corner and are probably in the best form of their careers.

And as Kerala heads for Nagpur on Sunday for the semifinal against former champion Railways, which begins on Christmas Day, the team has kept its preparations simple.

The basics

“We’re just doing what kids do. We’re working on the basics,” said the Kerala captain Sony Cheruvathur from Bangalore where the team has been training for the last few days.

“Railways is a very experienced side with Sanjay Bangar, Harvinder Singh and Murali Kartik but since the match is being played in Nagpur (a neutral venue as per the new BCCI rule), where we had won our first match this season, we have a big advantage. We’re not under any pressure. We’re just going to play to our potential,” said the 29-year-old.

The Kerala players have been raising the bar the last few matches, with captain Sony himself showing the way. In the last league match, against group-topper Gujarat, Sony came up with his career-best haul – a seven for 30 in the first innings, including a hat-trick, which placed him among the top five in the State list – a big factor that turned the match in Kerala’s favour.

Tamil Nadu’s S. Ramesh and S. Suresh played the guest role with distinction the last couple of seasons but surprisingly, Kerala does not seem to miss them this time. “The boys have begun to accept their responsibilities. They were making the pros shoulder the responsibilities earlier,” said Sony. “The push from the youngsters is now growing in strength.”

Striking form

It is wonderful to see the Kerala batsman striking form one by one in the last few games. After Sreekumar’s record triple ton at home in Palakkad, centuries have come from V.A. Jagadeesh, Raiphy Vincent Gomez and Roham Prem while P. Prasanth has been quite consistent.

“Anish is doing a wonderful job, shaping up nicely as a senior spinner. And Tinu has been bowling superbly, he got a five-wicket haul at Palakkad which was virtually a batsmen’s paradise. In fact, that close game at home gave us a lot of confidence.”

Hariharan, who has worked as a professional coach in Australia and Scotland earlier, has been a big motivator.

The team will have another strong weapon in Nagpur. Fast bowler S. Sreesanth who has been dropped from the Indian team after a shoulder injury is keen to use the semifinal to prove to the world that he is fit. He would want to fight his way back into the Indian team midway through the Australian series.

The Indian star did not attend the Bangalore camp but will be flying to Nagpur directly for the semifinal.

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