Yet another Ranji season is around the corner. This time, the prestigious domestic cricket tourney is coming with a number of cosmetic changes such as home-and-away format replacing neutral venue concept and abolition of elite and plate divisions.

Among the 28 squads in four groups that vie for the prestigious title, Kerala is placed in Group B alongside defending champions Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Saurashtra.

This time, team management has deputed prolific left hander Sachin Baby for the skipper’s post. A consistent face in the middle order since his debut in 2009, this Thodupuzha native was also seen donning the uniforms of Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the last few seasons of the Indian Premier League. Amidst the last round of training progressing at the Greenfield Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram, Sachin speaks to Mathrubhumi.

Earlier too, you have led Kerala in limited over formats. So how do you look at the elevation as Ranji captain?

I’m highly confident as we have a strong and balanced side this time. When the management asked my opinion about leading the side, I responded that I’m delightfully willing to take up this great responsibility.

The key area of focus?

A closer look at the results in the last few seasons will tell you that deficit of 2-3 points turned crucial for Kerala. The team is well aware of the fact. It is important to learn from the mistakes. These time preparations are in full swing and I’m optimistic that the team will put up a great show.

Kerala is placed in Group B along with reigning champions Gujarat. How do you feel?

Kerala had played with most of the teams in Group B in the past. Most of them have performed well in the previous editions. Still I believe that cricket is a mind game. In the KSCA tournament that held recently, we were able to beat Punjab and Mumbai. We can overcome any side if we keep a positive mindset. On the other hand, presence of high quality squads in the group ensures better encounters.

The addition of Jalaj Saxena and Arun Karthik as guest players?

Jalaj is a good all-rounder. Last season too, he was with us and performed well with the ball. The management realised the importance of keeping a quality spinner to support K S Monish from the other end. Also he can be an effective batsman in the middle order. Arun Karthik has a good track record at domestic level. He has performed consistently for Tamil Nadu and later for Assam. Their experience will an added benefit for the team.

How do you rate the squad?

For me, it is a well-balanced and experienced side. The induction of Arun Karthik will fortify the batting unit comprising handful of seasoned players such as Rohan Prem, Azaruddin, Sanju V Samson, Vishnu Vinod and Jalaj Saxena. Spin department will be handled by Monish and Jalaj while Akshay can give them company. Basil Thampi, Sandeep Warrier and Nidheesh will keep the pace battery at full charge.

The presence of players with international experience?

It is a positive stuff. Four among us have played IPL. Sijomon Joseph, who represented India U-19, has been named standby. Frankly, it was so difficult to pick the 15-member squad. It’s so hard to neglect highly talented junior members.

The shift from neutral venues to home-and-away format?

Personally, I prefer home-and-away format to neutral venue concept. Last season, we played our matches at venues in Bengal, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and so. It was little bit distressing to stay away from home for two months. The matches in front of home crowd can send positive vibes.

How well have the team gelled with Dav Whatmore’s techniques?

Whatmore is a guy who believes in hard work. For him, performance is the benchmark. He doesn’t insist training for long hours but is keen on how the time devoted for training is utlised. We had apprehensions when a person of Whatmore’s stature, who coached international sides and made Sri Lanka the world champions, took charge as our head coach. However, he could mingle with us so easily. Whatmore has developed his own style of training. Now it has become our responsibility to save the reputation of this man, who made remarkable accomplishments at international level. On a funny side, after mingling with us, Whatmore has now started speaking Malayalam.