Enhancing their reputation as a formidable force in domestic white-ball cricket, Kerala made it to the quarterfinals of the Vijay Hazare Trophy National One-Day Championship.
Kerala led by Sachin Baby stood third in Elite Group C behind Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh (UP) on net run rate, but managed to finish in the top eight among Elite Group teams.
Karnataka, UP and Kerala registered four wins from five matches and ended up with 16 points apiece.
Gujarat, Andhra, Karnataka, Mumbai and Saurashtra went through as group toppers, while UP and Kerala made the cut as the next two best teams by virtue of a strong net run rate. Delhi will take on Plate Group champions Uttarakhand in the only pre-quarterfinal on March 7.
Kerala's lone defeat came at the hands of Karnataka. They scored wins over Odisha, UP and Railways before demolishing Bihar in the final group game at Bengaluru on Sunday. Kerala, chasing a target of 149, were home and dry in just 8.5 overs. The huge win helped them improve the net run rate and book a spot in the last eight.
Sanju ruled out
Kerala have sufferred a big blow with star batsman Sanju Samson ruled out with injury. However, experienced pacer Basil Thampi has regained fitness and has been added to the squad ahead of the knockout phase which begins at New Delhi on March 7.
Kerala rode on the consistent performances of senior players Sachin, pacer S Sreesanth and outstation professionals Robin Uthappa and Jalaj Saxena to progress from a tough group. Opener Uthappa has been Kerala's highest run-getter with 375 runs from five matches at an average of 93.75 with an exceptional strike rate of 135.37. The 35-year-old has notched up two hundreds and as many fifties.
Sreesanth has been a revelation. Returning to the domestic circuit after a seven-year ban, the 38-year-old picked up 13 wickets. His 5/65 against UP and 4/30 against Bihar had a huge impact on the outcome.
Saxena has been hugely impressive with his off-spin bowling. The all-rounder picked up eight wickets at a miserly economy rate of 3.81.
Captain Sachin's 76 went a long way in Kerala getting the better of UP in a crucial game. The 32-year-old was removed as Ranji captain after the team's poor run last season. However, the experienced Sachin proved the think tank right after being handed over the reins of the one-day team.
Sachin was naturally delighted with the turn of events. “I'm really happy to have led Kerala to the knockout phase. I had the privilege of leading Kerala to the semifinals of the Hazare Trophy in 2012-13 besides taking the team to the Ranji Trophy semifinals in 2018-19. I have always enjoyed the added responsibility of captaincy,” Sachin told Onmanorama.
The semifinal appearance in the 2012-13 edition remains Kerala's biggest achievement in Hazare Trophy.
“It has been a team effort to say the least. The team has got a nice blend of youth and experience. Our aim is to go all the way. We know Kerala have not played a major final. The target is to break the jinx and win the cup.
"We know there will be no easy game from now on. We need to improve our bowling. The players are looking forward to the challenge,” added Sachin.
Former Kerala captain and ICC international panel umpire K N Ananthapadmanabhan said the Kerala team has gelled well. “The fact that three teams qualified for the quarterfinals from our group shows how tough the competition was. Even in the (Syed) Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20, we had scored wins over Delhi and Mumbai. The team has been playing consistent cricket,” said Ananthan.
Ananthan heaped praise on Sreesanth. “It takes immense hard work and courage to do well after such a long break. Unlike in the T20 format your fitness is under intense scrutiny in the one-day format. Sreesanth has shown that he's ready for the four-day format as well," said Ananthan.