Kerala cricket's impressive rise kindles promise of more
Kerala cricket has been in the news lately for all the right reasons and the feel-good mood is quite deserving. It does not matter that the happenings in Surat have not been encouraging with Kerala losing to Vidharba in the quarterfinal. However this progress to the next round in the Ranji championship is, to stretch Astronaut Neil Armstrong's famous words from the moon, has been a small step by the cricketers but a giant leap for Kerala cricket! Afterall it is the first time that the State team has made it to the last eight stage and we are talking here of a sport that at one time seemed never destined to grow in Kerala. Indeed time was when Kerala sports meant athletics, basketball,football and volleyball in the main.
There is no disputing the achievements in these disciplines. The very name of P.T.Usha or Unwin Antony or I M Vijayan or Jimmy George (names restricted to one each for convenience but there have been more in each field) will spring to mind awe-inspiring moments in the respective sport across the country and abroad too. In such a setting did cricket stand a chance to find space? High cost, too long duration of play to sustain interest, climate, minimal parental interest and general lack of facilities were some of the refrains heard on why cricket never sprouted to promising levels. Add to that performances till date and the discouraging scenario is complete.
Back in the eighties, when I had the opportunity to watch sports in Kerala in close quarters as a journalist representing a leading newspaper in the South, it was an unsettling experience that confronted me the first time. Having covered sports in Chennai and Mumbai where a sports writer's staple food is cricket and cricket mostly, Kochi was different as were Kozhikode, Kottayam, Thrissur, Kannur or Thiruvananthapuram, where all my presence was required from time to time! Except cricket every other sport thrived and glowingly too, it must be said. Still there was a thrill in seeing the throng of people, be it the overflowing temporary stadium hosting the Federation Cup volleyball in Badagara or the never ending sepentine queues at the Kozhikode Corporation stadium for the Nagjee football tournament!
Cricket barely passed muster. Not that domestic cricket matches anywhere in India attracted crowd. Even in Mumbai or Chennai, Ranji matches rarely brought not more than a few die hard fans to the venue. But the difference here was the disinterest in the own state's fortunes in the matches. “By how many runs did Kerala lose or did the match end in two days or one and half?!”were some of the queries often in jest. But then that used to be the ground reality at Ranji match centres. The then Kerala skipper S. Ramesh would often lament on how the lead teams like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Hyderabad would go out of the way to exert maximum pressure because winning the maximum points was always the ultimate goal. Teams like Kerala. Goa and Andhra were the ones to fill up the numbers in the South and they were the sides from whom the aim was to squeeze the maximum points. An innings defeat is the aim and for that no stones are left unturned!
Again, this is not to suggest that Kerala lacked talented cricketers. Players like K. Jayaraman, Thomas Mathew, Rajesh and Ramesh himself have shown the capability of coming up with decent batting displays from time to time and someone like V. Hariharan had once not only scored a century but backed it up with an incisive opening spell bowling. But the fact was they fade in the face of the quality from the opposition. Who would not go that extra mile to watch Krishnamachari Srikkanth whack the ball all around or witness the glorious drives of G. Vishwanath?. At Thalassery once, the interest seemed whether this dashing Tamil Nadu opener would break the glass of the clock tower not far away from the Municipal stadium or send the ball soaring into the sea closeby. May be those were comments in the ligher vein but such was the way Srikkanth had relished the Kerala bowling.
Away from the State since the late eighties, it gladens the heart of this cricket lover that the State has come this far in the sport. Cricket has found deep roots and part reason has to be the popularity of the shorter version of the sport. The IPL's entry was key though its effort to find a link in the State through the Kerala Tuskers ended abruptly but the interest sustained. Then again the Kerala Cricket Association has done its bit to shore up the sport. The impressive website of KCA lists the steps taken over the years, the laying of new cricket facilities, academies and the sustained effort to lift junior cricket. We now have a tested overseas coach Dave Whatmore to coach the Ranji team. What is more the State Association has placed before itself a mission 2020 to give the sport a new profile. The turn of the millenium was when Kerala saw its first cricketer in the national Test team in the form of fast bowler Tinu Yohanan in 2001. Five years later S. Sreesanth, another outstanding opening bowler provided the sparkle with his shows in both Tests and ODIs.
The positives of these two cricketers must have added the self-belief in the talents that followed them. Highly rated pacer Basil Thampi is already ready to make his debut in national T20. Batsman Sanju Samson is ready for big times so also Rohan Prem. Sachin Baby is already there. More bright cricketers are bound to rise from the well-chanelised junior ranks. Suffice to state, the day is not far when a Kerala Cricketer will have a permanent place in all forms of Cricket in India. And why not? If Kerala can have legends in athletics, volleyball, swimming, basketball and football, to name a few, surely cricket should not be far behind. Kerala can afford to see a few cricketing icons to light up the sports scene.