Sanju Samson was getting ready to pad up and head for the nets. It was the Kerala team’s first practice session ahead of the 2018-19 domestic season at the St Xavier’s Thumba ground, Thiruvananthapuram — a venue located in nature’s lap. A tranquil spot with green cover all around, it’s a venue where you could hear the sweet sound of leather hitting the willow loud and clear.
Samson waited as he was expecting some visitors who were waiting outside the boundary rope, ready with mikes, video cameras, notepads and armed with questions. He was expecting the questions that came his way, which weren’t primarily about the Ranji Trophy season that lay ahead.
It was about the big event that was going to unfold just five kilometres away. Among other things, a 35-foot-cut-out of MS Dhoni was being erected by a group going by the name of All Kerala Dhoni Fans Association at the Greenfield Stadium and a red carpet was being laid out for the nation’s cricketing royalty. The fans were going to have the opportunity to see the likes of Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni in flesh, as ODI cricket was returning to the state capital after a gap of 29 years.
Samson, while responding to the questions, expressed his disappointment at not being there next to Kohli and Dhoni in India colours. He felt he belonged there.
The ODI between India and West Indies was scheduled to be played on the same day (November 1) Kerala were starting their Ranji Trophy campaign against Hyderabad. The excitement about the ODI was at fever pitch, but there was interest and excitement about this Kerala team which had, in the previous season, achieved something that no other team from the state had done before — reach the quarterfinal of the Ranji Trophy.
In recent years, with some groundwork and meticulous planning, the Kerala team is starting to yield success on the field and players are starting to get recognition. Besides Sreesanth, the onset of the IPL helped players like Sanju Samson, Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier get the kind of visibility which was not afforded to the likes of KN Ananthapadmanabhan, Sunil Oasis and B Ramprakash who toiled in the domestic circuit at a time Kerala were considered punching bags for other big teams from the South.
That is now a distant memory. It all started in 2014 when steps were being taken to give some direction to cricket in the state. The arrival of Chandrakant Pandit as cricket director, one of the sharpest cricket brains in India, gave Kerala a new direction.
Cricket academies and turf wickets started to germinate across the state under his supervision. Coaches were groomed at the district level and infrastructure started to grow. Kerala’s climb up the cricketing ladder had started. “Academies for boys and girls were being set up. We had about 28 academies in every district. The infrastructure developed and players got to train and practice in indoor facilities. The right people were brought in at the right time. Pandit came in to take care of all the cricket activities,” Tinu Yohannan, the first ever Kerala cricketer to play for India, said.
The groundwork had been laid down and then KCA pulled a rabbit out of the hat by appointing World Cup-winning coach Dav Whatmore as the head coach in the 2017-18 season. The Australian’s impact was immediate. A team, that managed to get only one win in the 2016-17 season, marched all the way to the quarterfinals in the next under Whatmore. The team then bettered it by reaching the semifinal in the 2018-19 season.
Whatmore has insisted that he has no magic spells or potions that transformed Kerala into a side capable of beating top teams from the country. After he took over as the head coach, he was working with the same group of players who were ploughing through the domestic circuit without much success.
Whatmore brought in his man management skills and changed the mindset of the players, who he felt, were skilled enough to compete against other elite teams.S Ramesh, director of game operations of the KCA, was instrumental in bringing Whatmore to the Kerala set-up.
“We gave Whatmore all the freedom he needed to work. He came in and he was a very good mentor. More than a coach, he was a very good mentor for the team,” Ramesh said. Bringing Whatmore was a masterstroke by the KCA but another significant move was to bring Madhya Pradesh all-rounder Jalaj Saxena as their professional player. Saxena has thrived and has been the anchorman of the team since arriving on these shores.
After reaching the quarterfinal, Kerala wanted to show that it was no fluke. They showed that with a semifinal finish. But before the season could even start, the dressing room was rocked by mutiny that threatened to derail the team’s campaign. Some of the players rebelled against skipper Sachin Baby and demanded the removal of Baby as captain.
Thanks to Whatmore, who backed Baby, and the disciplining of these players by the KCA, order was restored. Baby managed to win the respect of the players and it had a galvanising effect with the team coming together as a unit. There was a noticeable shift from the earlier season where Kerala reached the quarters largely due to the individual efforts of players like Saxena and Samson.
Others started coming to the fore. Warrier and Thampi performed at a consistent level. With the help of Rajesh Chauhan, who was appointed as the strength and conditioning coach, Warrier and Thampi were able to bowl for long spells and the team’s fielding markedly improved.
Warrier took 44 wickets and Thampi got 36 wickets in the season. Saxena kept producing the goods with the bat and ball and under Baby’s leadership, they beat big guns like Delhi, Bengal and Gujarat on their way to making history.
Progress can be seen not just at the senior level. Youngsters like Vathsal Govind and Varun Nayanar have shown that the future is in safe hands.Their performances in the Cooch Behar Trophy have been noteworthy. Vathsal made over twelve-hundred runs in the tournament while Varun struck a double century. Nayanar is already playing for the India U-19 team even though he is just 16. Women’s cricket is also flourishing. The Kerala women’s U-23 team won the inaugural BCCI T20 Super League title which was held in April last year.2018 was an important year in Kerala’s cricketing calendar.
Samson’s performance in this IPL edition for Rajasthan Royals has drawn praise from various quarters. Brian Lara, Harsha Bhogle and Gautam Gambhir are some of the names who feel Samson has what it takes to play for India. Although the 24-year-old has missed the World Cup train, an India cap may not be far off.
“Mark my words, Sanju Samson will be in the Indian team for the next series after the World Cup,” Biju George, former talent scout of Kolkata Knight Riders and the India women’s team fielding coach, said.
Who knows? In a year’s time, Kerala might go one step further by reaching the final of Ranji Trophy and Samson might just earn that long-awaited India cap.