Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Four rounds into the Ranji season, Kerala are in with a solid chance of making the Plate league semi-finals, marking a strong turnaround for a side normally used to bringing up the rear. Last year, they finished winless, drawing four games and losing one, but they already have two wins and no losses this season. Kerala's clean-sheet tells only half the story though: they came alarmingly close to defeat in two of their games, both played on the treacherous pitch at the Nehru Stadium in Kochi, but escaped with a draw and a win to keep their campaign in good health.
First, Kerala's last pair batted out 125 balls to produce a a tense draw against Services, after they had fallen to 103 for 9 in pursuit of 153. The thrills of that game, however, were made to look almost mundane by the denouement of Kerala's fourth-round fixture, where Andhra Pradesh's last pair added 26 to get within an outside edge of victory, before the hosts squeaked home by two runs on the last morning.
Kerala's nail-biters have lit up the normally unglamorous Plate League, and sparked interest in a season that has largely featured mindless run-fests and crawling races for first-innings honours. Part of the credit must go to the Nehru Stadium pitch where run-making has bordered on the impossible. In three matches, only once has a team managed to reach 300; even that was against the unflattering Tripura bowling line-up. Leaving out that innings, only four fifties have come in ten innings - a striking contrast from the IPL season when totals of 150 were reached in three of the four matches that weren't curtailed by rain. It is fair to say that the pitch has undergone a complete change in character since then.
The transformation, according to the KCA secretary TC Mathew, was sparked by a pitch re-laying exercise. "We re-laid the wicket last year," Mathew tells ESPNcricinfo. "But after the IPL we had to prepare the square again as there was a crack on it. It normally takes one year for a wicket to settle down, and it should be alright by mid-2012."
Kochi's extreme weather and the nature of the soil used on the strip are also responsible for the pitch's volte-face. Kerala coach Biju Mathew explains: "The pitch was very good during the IPL, but I believe the BCCI's directive was to use only clay and not the local red soil while re-laying it. When the weather is sunny it cracks up very easily and in the monsoon rains it gets very damp as well. Hence, one ball stays up, the next one stays down, and batting is close to impossible."
Strikingly, there have been no murmurs of pitch-doctoring from Kerala's opponents. Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar, the manager of the Services side that came so agonisingly close to winning in Kochi, believes that the current state of the track could not have been intentionally arrived at.
"It is naturally this way, there's something in the wicket itself because of the soil and climate," Bhaskar tells ESPNcricinfo. "I had discussions with the curator when we were in Kochi, and he said they have tried several things to improve the binding, including mixing red sand into one of the practice pitches, but even that cracked up. Normally, [if the home association is trying to manipulate the pitch] one of the strips on the square will stand out for its unusual nature, be it up and down, or grassy. But here, all the pitches - even the practice strips - share the same characteristics."
In a lighter vein, Biju Mathew points out that once a batsman bats on this pitch, he becomes ready to play in any conditions. "[Tripura batsman] Vinayak Samant has played 100 first-class matches, but he scored his first double-century only now, after playing in Kochi. Similarly, Services opener Pratik Desai promptly scored 200 immediately after batting here."
Kerala have no more league fixtures in Kochi, and Mathew looks forward to playing the next round on a "normal wicket" in Tellicherry. But, given the chance, will he want to return to Kochi in the knock-out stages?
"Definitely," is Mathew's quick and emphatic response. "For all the pitch problems, Kochi has been lucky for us. Besides, when you play a superior opponent, it is always better to have unpredictability on your side!"