Ranji Trophy 2017/18: Kerala skipper Sachin Baby credits team’s historic win to new coach Dav Whatmore
November 28, 2017, was a historic day for Kerala Cricket. The team from a football-loving state reached the quarter-finals of the elite first-class cricket tournament, the Ranji Trophy, for the first time. Kerala became the second team to qualify from Group B after hammering Haryana by an innings and eight runs at the Chaudhry Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium.
Their previous best performance in the Ranji Trophy prior to this was reaching the pre-quarterfinals in the 1994-95 season.
Talking about the miseries from last year alone, the perpetual Ranji underdogs won one game out of the nine they played, drew seven and finished fifth on the points table. The then Coach P Balachandran was sacked mid-season.
This year, however, Kerala’s arrival on the scene can be credited to the new coach-captain combination of Dav Whatmore and Sachin Baby.
“The players, the team management, the Kerala cricket officials; we are all in a euphoric mood,” captain Sachin Baby told Sportskeeda soon after guiding his troop to a berth in the quarterfinals.
“We haven’t really had the time to celebrate yet. Soon after the match we left for Delhi from Lahli, Haryana and we will be going on a four-day break tomorrow (as told on November 28), after which we should be in Surat, Gujarat by December 3 for the quarter-final against Vidarbha,” he added.
According to Sachin, it is new coach Whatmore who has helped Kerala break free from the shackles of misfortune and embarrassment.
The Sri Lankan-born former Australian cricketer-turned-coach, Whatmore’s coaching credentials are under no scrutiny. Under him, the then weak Sri Lankan team went on to win the 1996 Cricket World Cup. During his stint with Bangladesh in 2005, the Tigers registered Test wins for the first time in their history. Two years later, Bangladesh also made it to the super-8 stage in the 2007 World Cup.
From being underdogs to qualifying for the quarter-finals wasn’t an overnight fairy-tale moment for the team. The historic moment came following months of training for several hours a day.
“Dav Whatmore has made the difference this year. He brings immense experience with him to the table. We started our preparations for the Ranji Trophy in June-July in Chennai. We worked really hard and sometimes also practiced for 6-7 hours a day.”
“Whatmore’s coaching technique is novel. He studied all the players, identified the capabilities of the team as a whole and the strength and weakness of each player, and figured out how they can compete at this level,” Baby recalled.
“He has always asked us to play our natural game and assured that regardless of how we performed, we would always have his backing,” the RCB cricketer added.
The on-going Ranji season is the first for Baby as the captain of the team. The batsman believes that playing under Virat Kohli in the IPL helped him hone his captaincy.
“I like Kohli’s captaincy, his aggressive style and how he backs the players. I still remember when I played my first game for RCB against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Virat came up to me and told me to not worry about how big I could score and instead just to play my natural game,” the 28-year-old reminisced.
“He gave me the confidence to not worry about my spot in the team for the next game even if I didn’t get runs. Your captain’s backing can make a lot of difference and help your confidence grow. As a captain myself, I try to use the same captaincy techniques for my boys,” he elaborated.
The captain and the coach form two strong pillars of a team and are both legends in their own right. However, it is not always that they are on the same wavelength. For Kerala, though, perfect bonding between the captain and coach has helped the team exceed expectations this year.
“Whatmore and I almost always share the same opinion. If I happen to say something, he will tell me that he was going to say the same! We have the same thought process and he has always backed me. The coach’s trust in the captain is very important, and this has worked out perfectly for us.”
The southpaw made his first-class debut for Kerala against Andhra Pradesh at Kannur in November 2009. Since then, he has played 53 first-class matches in which he has scored 2365 runs at an average of 32.39. The Thodupuzha-born cricketer reminisced about the team’s sorry state of affairs during the time he made his debut.
“I debuted for Kerala when S. Sreesanth was the captain. I still remember the first thing he said was that we have to somehow lift our game and make it to the top 8. Back then, to make it to the top 8 seemed a monumental task. We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we took the goal seriously. I’m happy we finally lived our dream moment,” the skipper said in a happy tone.
“After we won the first game, the team developed confidence and believed that they could move into the next round. We needed to win every match to qualify for the quarter-finals,” he added.
For Baby the batsman, the current season has not been very productive in terms of runs. Although 273 runs in 10 innings is not mediocre by any stretch of the imagination, a batsman of his caliber can do much better. For the captain, however, the team’s results come before personal milestones.
“The captaincy pressure is not affecting my performances. For me, the team comes before myself. After the last game (in which he scored a duck), Whatmore came and told me to not stress. He told me that cricket is a funny game; you could score a duck in one game and a century in the next. So hopefully I will hit a century when it matters the most,” he said with positivity.
Kerala’s next major assignment is against Vidarbha, a team that have enjoyed decent success in the tournament over the years. The match will be played in Gujarat’s Surat City.
“Vidarbha are playing wonderful cricket. Chandrakant Pandit, who was our coach for two seasons, is coaching Vidarbha this season. I hope we can continue the winning momentum against them. All our players are in fine form right now. Sanju Samson is in good nick and so is Jalaj Saxena. We also have two new left arm spinners in the side. So hopefully we will seal the deal one more time,” he said optimistically.
With the IPL auctions approaching, we asked Baby his preferred choice for the T20 extravaganza’s 11th edition. The RCB cricketer remained loyal to his IPL franchise and promptly said that he would want to continue being a part of the Royal Challengers family.
“I love RCB, I love playing in Bangalore. The local crowd is lovely and they make us feel like we are their family members..”
In the candid mood that he was post the victory, Baby also spoke about his wife and life after marriage. The couple, who reportedly dated for a year and a half, made their marriage announcement in dramatic fashion. The two released a video in which they were seen donning the RCB colours on a cricket field. They tied the knot on January 5, 2017 at St. Sebastian’s Church in Thodupuzha, Baby’s hometown.
“Married life is going well. Now that she has started understanding cricket, she asks me questions like why am I not getting runs, why am I not getting centuries (chuckles). She is very supportive.”
“Initially, much like most of the girls, she asked me to give her more time. She would be like 'talk to me, give me time' but now she understands my routine and asks me to concentrate on my game,” Baby signed off.
Kerala may boast of its breathtaking backwaters, but it certainly cannot be called a cricketing backwater anymore.