Lucky lot get a plate of promise

For long, the South has been the toughest Ranji Trophy zones in the country. The Kerala cricketers now get a chance to prove themselves in the Plate Group, a match between equals, says STAN RAYAN.

WITH THE last name being called, one could see the tension in the camp slowly slithering away. Moments later, holding back their disappointment with a broad grin, the boys who missed the Kerala Ranji Trophy team congratulated the select 14 and, sportingly, wished them the best.

The final 14 now did their workout at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium with a spring in their step. Ranji Trophy's new Plate Group, the unknown devil, has sure brought with it a sense of adventure.

"The mystery factor sure makes this format exciting,'' said the Kerala captain Sunil Oasis. It will also be a break from the tough and monotonous South Zone where strangely, the team hit the depths last season.

"We are a lucky lot this season. It's quite tough to get a pool like this. Except for Saurashtra and Services, all the teams are equal and compared to the South Zone, it looks a lot easier. We have a good chance of qualifying to the Elite Group,'' said Oasis who, along with the seasoned K.N.Ananthapadmanabhan and M.Suresh Kumar, has been the hero of many a Ranji battle in the recent past.

A new coach, two professional batsmen to strengthen its top order, a bunch of fresh youngsters raring to go... well, the team is painted with different strokes this time.

Lucky lot get a plate of promise

"The boys are good, some of them are quite experienced too. They just had a bad year last season. Now, we'll have to play well as a team. I've been working on the importance of team spirit,'' said former India fast bowler Abey Kuruvilla, the new Kerala coach.

Abey is Indian cricket's gentle giant. Despite his six-foot six-inch frame, he is soft-spoken and a man of few words. And like many of his boys, the Mumbai cricketer who has his roots in Mannar (near Alappuzha) will be on trial too. This will be Abey's first major assignment; he has had brief stints as coach of the BCCI's West Zone Academy and with junior age groups in Lanchashire last year. And after his retirement in 2000, he played for the South Port Club in England for five months.

You don't teach racehorses how to run. Senior cricket is all about tactics and aggression, you don't teach players the basics there. And in the uncertain world of cricket, your form and guiles on match day count more than anything else.

And if Abey had any tricks and tactics up his sleeve for the five matches of the Ranji Trophy's Second Division, which the Plate Group is, he kept them nicely concealed during the pre-series chat on Sunday.

Since Kerala plays Saurashtra in a tough tie in Rajkot (November 19-22) after its opener against Goa in Kochi, Abey could count on the experience of Karnataka's Sujith Somasunder who is one of the two professional batsmen signed in by the Kerala Cricket Association this season (Tamil Nadu's left-handed bat C. Hemant Kumar is the other).

Opener Sujith, who played for Saurashtra last season, was the team's highest run-getter last year with 355 runs, including a century against Gujarat. He could come in handy and tip the Kerala boys about Saurashtra's leading wicket-takers, left-arm mediumpacer Joil Jobanputra and all rounder Niraj Rambhai Odedra, who were in good form last season.

The weather could play a crucial role this time. "We'll be playing Services in Delhi in peak winter. We are not used to playing in such conditions down South here,'' said former Kerala captain K. Jayaram, a State senior team selector now.

Like Kerala, three of other five teams in Plate's Group `A' -- Services (North Zone), Vidarbha (Central) and Tripura (East) -- finished last in their respective zones and this should offer our boys some cheer. Saurashtra (West) and Goa (South) avoided the last rung.

Lucky lot get a plate of promise

The Plate offers a lot of hope, and promise too. "This could be our big chance to qualify for Ranji's Elite Group,'' said the ever-optimistic Kerala Cricket Association secretary S.Haridas. Two teams from each of the Plate's two groups advance to the semifinals and both the finalists progress to next season's Elite Group.

"For this reason alone, we were forced to bring in the professional batsmen to boost our top-order. Batting, as our records in the Ranji and almost all other age groups show, has been our big weakness the last three years. Hopefully, the new moves should change the situation,'' said Mr Haridas.

And for a change, along with the experienced spin line-up, Kerala also has a decent pace attack, which includes Test player Tinu Yohannan, this time. Though it may not click in Kochi against Goa, the strong pace could be useful in three of the away matches in the five-match series.

"And since Abey comes from Mumbai which has won the Ranji Trophy many times, his experience will surely come in handy,'' said the Kerala captain.

Will Abey bring in the Mumbai magic to Kerala ?

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