From the hinterlands of Kerala to galloping around in Gujarat: The inspiring story of Basil Thampi
After being picked to play for Gujarat Lions in the 2017 Indian Premier League, he didn't have the greatest of starts. The speedster from Kerala went wicketless in his first three matches and the most interesting instance featuring him was him losing his shoe during the run-up, just to see Sunrisers Hyderabad captain David Warner pick it up and hand him back.
His skipper, Suresh Raina, kept faith in him though, and he got a chance again. His fourth match of the season, this time, against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, that had the likes of Virat Kohli, Shane Watson and Chris Gayle in their ranks. Bowling at the RCB batsmen on a flat deck is always a nightmare and in the three previous meetings between both these teams, the Lions were hunted down by Kohli and AB de Villiers.
The way the match started, one would have expected the same story as openers Kohli and Gayle went on a rampage.
After conceding just 13 runs off his first two overs, he was recalled into the attack with Kohli's men going strong - the scorecard reading 120 in the first 12 overs. Both the batsmen were set and the bowler was wicketless in the tournament, until then.
Enter BASIL THAMPI
The young pacer from Kerala had impressed everyone with his abilities, especially in the death overs, despite being wicketless.
Gayle, who was looking dangerous with a 37-ball 77, tried to take the attack to Thampi, but, the bowler had the last laugh. His first IPL wicket, a wicket that is very special to him.
And how did he send the Big Jamaican back to the pavilion? With his most favourite delivery, the yorker.
Bowling around the wicket, he got the ball to swing back in sharply after pitching it full. Gayle was a bit too late in bringing his bat down and missed the shot completely. The ball hit him on the shoe, right in front of the middle stump and the umpire had no hesitation in raising his finger.
Little did he know that the moment will be a big turning point in his career. He then went on to get the wickets of some of the biggest batsmen, MS Dhoni, Kieron Pollard, Rishabh Pant to name a few.
In his maiden appearance in a tournament of IPL's magnitude, Thampi accounted for 11 wickets in 12 matches at an average of 38 and an economy of 9.5, numbers that might not look good in T20s. But despite that, he was adjudged the Emerging Player of the tournament.
"When I was informed that I have been picked as the emerging player of the tournament, I was completely over the moon. That was the best feeling ever for me as I never expected to win the award," Thampi said in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.
If you feel yorker is your strength, just bowl them
In spite of all the accolades he received in the last ten months, Thampi remained humble and thanked his Gujarat Lions captain Suresh Raina for believing in him and giving him the freedom. Not only Raina but all the senior members of the team, including the coaching staffs, realised the talent he possessed and didn't let his confidence drop during initial hiccups.
Raina, despite his team's struggles in the tournament, didn't put any pressure on the rookie and that went on to pay dividends. Raina reassured Thampi that he will be bowling most of his overs at the death and that gave the pacer a lot of time to plan and get used to the match situation.
"The credit goes to my captain Suresh Raina. He didn't put any pressure on me both on and off the field. That was the main reason why I was successful in the IPL. He used to say, 'bowl whatever you want. If you feel yorker is your strength, just bowl them. Don't bother about going for runs. Just go and express yourself.' He also informed me that I will be bowling majority of my overs in the death. So, it was easy for me to plan. Even in the nets, I used to bowl with certain scenarios in mind to get used to the match situations.
"The likes of Brad Hodge, PK bhai (Praveen Kumar), Munaf bhai, Brendon McCullum, Heath Streak, everyone gave me a lot of confidence and made me comfortable. In the first three matches, I didn't take a single wicket. So, there was some pressure on me to perform. But, my teammates didn't put any pressure on me and that made me do well in the upcoming matches," Thampi conceded.
Motivation from the Indian cricketers
Just like hundreds of Indian and international cricketers, Thampi registered himself for the 2017 IPL auction but wasn't sure whether he will be picked to play in the extravaganza. However, his heroics in the 2017 Inter-Zonal T20 tournament and the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament had already caught the eye of the fans, selectors, players and few members of the Indian team management.
Subsequently, the 24-year-old was asked to fly down to Pune and bowl at the Indian batsmen in nets, ahead of the first India-Australia Test. While he was already living his dream of bowling at the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, the D-Day arrived.
The IPL auction got underway while Thampi was at the MCA stadium. The auctioneer, Richard Madley, was calling out the names and selling players one after the other. Thampi, meanwhile, wasn't very confident about getting picked, but the Indian internationals kept his morale up.
"I won't forget that time. I was in Pune bowling at the Indian batsmen in the nets during the auction. I knew I had a 50-50 chance and the Indian players gave me a lot of confidence by saying 'you will be picked to play in the IPL'. That really kept my motivation going in the nets. Still, I wasn't sure that I will be picked and when I got to know that I was picked, it was quite surprising," he said.
Last over, 3 runs to win, 3 wickets in hand. Bowler: A 14-year-old Basil Thampi
From almost giving up cricket for a job in Gulf to becoming one of the best fast bowlers in the country, life has given Thampi a lot of surprises. If you had asked him a decade back, he would have openly admitted that Cricket would not have been a part and parcel of his life ten years later.
Thampi, whose father was a footballer, started as one himself, following the footsteps of his dad. But, that didn't stop him from playing Tennis ball cricket with his friends. That was the turning point of Thampi's life as he was spotted by one of his neighbours, who was also a part of Perumbavoor Cricket Club, to play for the club.
After that, there was no turning back for the pacer as he moved to one of the best Cricket clubs in Kerala, Swantons Cricket Club.
"I started my career as a Footballer because my Father is a Football player who used to play for some clubs in Kerala. Even then, I used to play Tennis ball cricket and that was when one of my neighbours, Vishwajith picked me to play for his team in an under-17 tournament. That was the first time I played with stitched balls and he asked me to bowl. Then, I moved to Perumbavoor Cricket Club. At that time, I didn't even imagine that Cricket will play an important role in my life as I was just playing for fun. I was picked to play under-19 cricket for Kerala. That was when I moved from Perumbavoor Cricket Club to Swantons Cricket Club in Kerala, one of the best teams in the state," Thampi recalled.
I even got the opportunity to speak to Mr. Vishwajith about his role in influencing Thampi to take up cricket and he came up with an interesting incident.
Remarkably, in one of the under-17 league matches, the opposition needed just three runs to win in the last over, with three wickets in hand. A 14-year-old Thampi bowled that over and got all the three wickets without conceding a single run.
"I first saw him bowl in his school. At that time, he was a Football player who used to play for clubs in Ernakulam. A few days later, I saw him sitting with his friends on a wall where we have our nets. I asked him whether he is willing to bowl or not because I know he can bowl well as I have already seen him bowl in the school. He was interested in that and he bowled in our nets without wearing shoes and was just wearing a lungi. I picked him in our team to take part in an under-17 (now under-16) Cricket league conducted by Ernakulam Cricket Association. He was the top wicket-taker in that league," he said.
"It was the semi-final and the opponents needed just three runs to win with three wickets remaining. I thought that our tournament is over and was very disappointed that we couldn't win in spite of playing so well throughout the tournament. Thampi was bowling and he didn't concede a single run and took all three wickets. That was a great achievement considering the fact he was just 14 and despite that, did well under pressure," Vishwajith added.
From Gulf to Chennai: How Thampi's career took off
One would think that this kickstarted Thampi's career. But, his life took a completely different turn when he decided to leave the country and move to Gulf in search of a job. He also informed his friends and relatives about this decision.
But when he was bidding goodbye to everyone, life gave him a second chance to prosper as a cricketer.
This time, Swantons Cricket Club in charge Mr. CM Deepak, somehow changed his mind and convinced him to stay back and focus on his game. He also promised Thampi that he will sponsor him for a trip to Chennai, where he will train at Chemplast under the watchful eyes of former Indian fast bowler Tinu Yohannan.
"After playing for Swantons CC for few months, I thought this enough for me and planned to go abroad (one of the Gulf countries). I even called all my friends, teammates and relatives to inform that I don't want to play anymore and I am going abroad for work as I wanted to supplement my family income. CM Deepak, who was the in charge of the club at that time, somehow convinced me to stay at least till I finish my studies and sponsored me for a trip to Chennai to train under Tinu Yohannan at Chemplast."
When contacted, CM Deepak from Swantons CC in Ernakulam, recalled how ignorant Thampi was when he joined the club. As Thampi was planning to leave the country, the club was very adamant to make him stay. Later, Deepak approached the club's alumni and former Kerala vice-captain Ajay Kudua, who is the assistant coach at Chemplast Sanmar to give Thampi a trial and Ajay gave a green signal.
There was no turning back for the pacer after that.
Talking about his influence in Thampi's career, Deepak said, "One of our coaches, Saju was a scout in Ernakulam and he was the one who asked us to invest in Thampi. When he joined us, he was not focussed. He was more into Tennis ball cricket. Sometimes, he used to skip the league matches to play Tennis ball cricket in which he is a big name. He was a promising player and had raw pace. We somehow wanted to persuade him from not leaving the country and make him stay because he was so good.
"We decided to send him to Chennai to train with Ajay Kudua, who started his career with us. I spoke to Ajay and he said that he will take Thampi for a month and see his progress. He went there and that is when he realized how big things are how well he is shaping up. There was Yohannan as well who was a part of our club in the past and he helped Thampi when he went there initially."
According to Deepak, Thampi was bowling to Murali Vijay and S Badrinath at the nets and had interactions with L Balaji. They even wanted him to play for Tamil Nadu as TN were struggling to find a proper replacement for Balaji. Vijay took Thampi to bowl in the TN Ranji Trophy camp and he built up self-belief and realized what he had in him. Soon after, Ajay got him a job at Chemplast and since then, things have been going in the right direction for Thampi.
Ajay said when Thampi joined Chemplast, he was a raw product and they found him special, thanks to the pace at which he bowled and the fitness he had. He also termed Thampi's decision to move to MRF later in his career unfortunate.
Even when he was speaking to Sportskeeda, Thampi was asked about the chances of him moving to Tamil Nadu and play for them for which he quipped, "Kerala is my native and I will like to continue playing for them.
"That was my first trip to Chennai and I spent a lot of time with Yohannan sir and came back home. I was picked for Kerala under-25 side when I was just 19 or 20. This is how I started my career. I played under-22, under-23 for Kerala and the same year, I was selected in the Kerala senior team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tourney and the last three years I have been playing for them," recalled Thampi.
Thampi's destiny with MRF
Chemplast, India Cements and MRF are three of the fiercest competitors when it comes to Tamil Nadu Cricket Association's divisional leagues. On most of the occasions, the matches between two teams managed by the three above-mentioned organisations decide the winner of the league.
Among these three, MRF have their own pace foundation which is currently being run by Mr M Senthilnathan, along with the mentorship of Australian legend Glenn McGrath. Before McGrath, former Aussie pacer Dennis Lillee was a part of the pace academy.
The academy acts as a stepping stone for the pacers who are good enough to play international cricket.
Even Sachin Tendulkar attended the academy in his childhood days to hone is fast bowling skills. It was there Lillee advised Sachin to give up fast bowling and concentrate only on his batting. Sachin did that and as they say, the rest is history.
"MRF conducted an audition and I did well there. They offered me a job with the company. Without any hesitation, I accepted that and I have been working with M Senthilnathan sir and Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Academy. That is where I learnt the basics of fast bowling, got my length back as they told me what exactly I should do to be successful," Thampi said.
But, getting into the MRF pace foundation wasn't easy for the Kerala pacer. The second of the two incidents Vishwajith recalled was about how Thampi was destined to work at MRF. Even before he moved to Swantons CC, Thampi gave a try out at the foundation but was rejected twice.
"When he was playing for us, he attended a trial with MRF pace foundation twice. They used to conduct 15-20-day camps for youngsters. Unfortunately, he wasn't up to the mark and got rejected on both the occasions. And a few years later when he was playing for Chemplast teams, MRF themselves offered him a job and now, he is working with them," Vishwajith recalled.
Even before Thampi made a name for himself, MRF acquired him from Chemplast and that was a brilliant bargain by Senthilnathan and co. When we spoke to the MRF coach about Thampi's purchase, he praised the Kerala pacer and his natural ability to bowl fast and spray yorkers, something that can be used well in the shorter formats.
"There is something called talent scouting and we have been doing that for the last few decades. We always look for bowlers who bowl fast and later, we will develop him. Bowling fast is something natural and a bowler cannot learn that. Thampi was one such bowler and we decided to take him when he saw him bowl. He had the ability to bowl fast and his yorkers were deadly. We felt that he could be useful for us in the shorter formats and picked him," Senthilnathan conceded.
The art of mastering the yorker and his "swing" goals
It doesn't matter how good a batsman you are, if a bowler bowls an accurate yorker, it is almost impossible for you to hit runs off it. Having a bowler with a deadly yorker is an asset for any team in an era where the bat is dominating the ball in both ODIs and T20Is.
Over the last few years, the Indian team has been searching for a fast bowler who can bowl yorkers at will in the death overs. Mohammad Shami proved to the answer for India's search but unfortunately, it proved to be a temporary one and hardly played ODI cricket post the end of 2015 World Cup.
In the meantime, the Indian aficionados saw the rise of Jasprit Bumrah, who has established himself as one of the best death bowlers in the world. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has improved a lot when it comes to his death bowling and has an accurate yorker. Both Bumrah and Bhuvi bowling in the death overs is making life difficult for the opposition batsmen as they get limited opportunities to score runs towards the end.
The ones who followed Thampi closely during the 2017 Inter-Zonal T20 and the subsequent IPL will know that he belongs in the same category as Bhuvi and Bumrah. Even his captain at Gujarat Lions, Suresh Raina used him as a death bowler, thanks to his variations and yorker.
Thampi himself conceded that yorker is his biggest strength and he loves to bowl in the death overs before adding that he mastered it just by playing Tennis ball cricket as a kid. Remember him saving three runs in the last over when he was 14?
"Yorker is my biggest strength. I love to bowl in the death overs as I am very confident about my yorkers. I used to play a lot of Tennis ball cricket back home. The matches were six overs a side contests being played on small grounds and they will start late in the night. To contain the batsmen, you need to bowl yorkers and because the matches were six overs a side, there will be a lot of pressure on the bowlers to do well. That's where I practised my yorkers and mastered it," Thampi admitted.
Thampi might be the best when it comes to bowling yorkers but the same cannot be said when it comes to conventional seam bowling. With a national call-up in striking distance, Thampi has realized the importance of swing bowling and is currently working on it at the moment. McGrath gave him a piece of his mind about swing bowling and was very particular in Thampi not compromising his pace for swing.
"Swing is something that I want in my armoury and I am working on it. I used to get a lot of tips from McGrath and before the IPL, he advised me how to approach the game and asked me not to compromise on my pace at any cost. Whenever I work with McGrath and Senthil sir, I get a lot of clarity on how to approach the game," Thampi conceded.
Playing for India is a dream for any cricketer and the case is no different with Thampi. But, at the moment, all he wants is to add swing bowling to his armoury.
India A journey and future goals
After his success in the IPL, Thampi caught everyone's eye and the Indian selectors didn't waste any time as they picked him for India A's tour of South Africa in August and the ongoing series against New Zealand A. In between, he also played in a couple of Duleep Trophy matches.
These are the matches that will give a player some experience before they graduate to the next level and at times, these matches will determine whether a particular player can make it to international cricket not. In Thampi's case, the latter was not a question as he is destined to play for India. He is still a raw product and playing these matches will give him an invaluable insight on what he'll face when he plays at the top level.
Thampi also highlighted the importance of India A coach Rahul Dravid as his advice gives the young players an idea on what to do when they take the field.
He spoke highly of Dravid as he praised him by saying, "Rahul sir is a very nice human being and is a nice guy to work with. He doesn't tell too many things to you before a match. He just gives you a piece of his mind on what needs to be done. He always speaks about cricket, shares his experience, how he faced the bowlers at his time, what the batsmen will think etc. This gives us an idea on what to do and will help us in the match."
It is only a matter of time before he receives his India cap. But, the pacer is ready to wait for his opportunity, if he is destined for one. Having said that, the 24-year-old, who idolizes South African pacer Dale Steyn and the last pacer to play for India from Kerala, S Sreesanth, has already set his sights on being a T20 specialist because his style of bowling is suited more to T20s than the other two formats.
"It (the India call-up) all depends on what the God wants us to do. Everyone wants to play for India and the case is no different with me. I know I am bowling well and I am looking forward to play for the country. I would want to be a T20 specialist. I have heard people saying that my game suits T20s more. I would like to bowl in first-class matches as well. But, the way I bowl suits me more in T20s and sometimes in List A. So, I always prefer the T20 format and at the same time, I won't refuse to bowl if I am given a chance to play in FC or List A matches," Thampi concluded.
20 first-class wickets in 13 matches at an average of 44, 15 wickets in 12 List A games at an average of 26 and economy of 5 and 37 T20 wickets in 35 outings at an average of 27 and an economy of just below 8, these numbers tell a different story about Thampi's achievements so far.
But, sometimes, stats do lie and don't tell you the exact story. Thampi's case belongs to that category. Not everyone who succeeded in the domestic circuit had had impressive numbers. What matters is the dedication and the amount of hard-work he puts in to improve as a bowler every passing day.
He has shown what he is capable of and has received praises from some of the greats of the sport including his mentor Glenn McGrath who said, "The Indian attack has very good bowlers now and the emergence of names like Basil Thampi and a few others is only going to help the team in the long run. Thampi has come on very well. His performances in IPL this year won him the Emerging Player award and he has learned a lot at the academy," earlier this year.
One thing is certain, Thampi is clear about what suits him and is ready to progress to the next level. With the Indian selectors us a rotation policy to try out different names ahead of the 2019 World Cup, Thampi's international debut could come at the earliest. When he makes his debut for the Indian team, the opposition batsmen will surely have nightmares about him bowling in tandem with Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the death overs.