Hands on hips, and standing barely a few paces away from the centre square at the picturesque Krishnagiri Stadium, Vidarbha coach Chandrakant Pandit is involved in an animated discussion with captain Faiz Fazal. They have the grand mist-laden Kolagapparra Hills in the background — quite a surreal setting for their Ranji Trophy semifinal against hosts Kerala. One can only guess the topic of the discussion but taking into account the last match at this venue, the quarterfinal against Gujarat, which was wrapped up inside three days, it would be fairly safe to assume that the pitch is something that has caught their attention.
Historically, the 22-yard strip at Krishnagiri is known to favour fast bowlers. The pacers accounted for as many as 36 scalps during the Kerala-Gujarat quarterfinal. Ashish Bhowmick, BCCI’s neutral curator, had only this to say: “This will be a sporting wicket, make no mistake about it.”
The tinge of green will help Kerala’s in-form three-pronged pace attack comprising Sandeep Warrier, Basil Thampi and MD Nidheesh, who have accounted for close to 100 wickets among themselves. However, they will have their task cut out because Vidarbha have at their disposal the experienced Wasim Jaffer, who is in the middle of another purple patch, having amassed over 1,200 runs in this season. His output could ultimately prove to be the difference between the two sides.
However, the extra tinge of green could be counter-productive for Kerala also because Vidarbha’s bowling has extra ammunition with the return of Umesh Yadav. Despite Kerala’s batsmen showing plenty of pluck in this Ranji campaign, Yadav has the skill, pace and nip to run through their line-up if conditions are in his favour. After a spectacular show in the 2017-18 season, Rajneesh Gurbani has fallen off the radar somewhat this year. However, this could just be the venue where he orchestrates a turnaround in his fortunes.
In the midst of all the brouhaha surrounding Kerala’s march into the semifinals, one needs to commend the sheer maturity with which captain Sachin Baby has marshalled his resources. Things were not easy for him at the start of the season, as infighting and a revolt against the skipper threatened to rip this team apart. But more than five months later, Baby and coach Dav Whatmore have forged a grand alliance to orchestrate a change in their fortunes. Suddenly, there is more unity and bench strength, with players feeding off each other’s success. So much so, that even the absence of effervescent stroke-maker Sanju Samson does not seem to deter them. “Yes, there’s no doubt that we will miss his services. But I firmly believe we have the bench strength to tide over this loss,” Baby explained.
Whatmore summed up the heady season, when he said: “This has been a genuine team effort that has got them here. Not just the pacers and our professional players like Arun Karthik and Jalaj Saxena, but some of our lesser known players like P. Rahul and Vinoop Manoharan have stepped up at crucial junctures to take us into the knockouts.”
For Baby, playing on this venue assumes greater significance because this is where he made his maiden first-class century five seasons ago against Hyderabad, and followed it up with a double ton at this same ground. “Yes, Krishnagiri is my lucky venue. Going forward, I will consider myself third-time lucky if Kerala defeat Vidarbha and enter the Ranji Trophy final,” he added.
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