What is it about Kerala that we see so many athletes from the state? Have a look at the Indian track and field teams in the past, and you will find strong representation from the state. In sports like volleyball, where height is an asset, it’s not uncommon to see athletes from Kerala dominating the domestic circuit. And even in cricket, where Kerala is hardly a superpower, the state has now contributed three fast bowlers to the Indian team. Although he is yet to earn his first cap, the latest of these, Basil Thampi, is making a good impression this Indian Premier League (IPL).
Thampi is like the corner piece in a jigsaw puzzle with two flat sides and two pegs: he brings two very specific skills to the Sunrisers Hyderabad line-up: pace, and his ability to bowl yorkers. In the last couple of games, he provided the former: he rushed an in-form Chris Gayle with a short of length ball, inducing a top edge, and a game earlier he removed the entrenched Suryakumar Yadav with a ball that hit the bat closer to the handle than the middle. After an impressive IPL debut season last year, Thampi already has five wickets in three matches in this edition.
Yet he might never have gotten a game had Billy Stanlake not been ruled out with a back injury. But while Stanlake was often bowled out by the 15th over, Thampi has not bowled his four overs so far, but he has afforded his captain another option to use at the death.
In a team that has doubled their percentage of slower balls in the last three games, Thampi is a misfit, he is not known for one. But his early years spent in tennis-ball cricket have honed his yorker. “In tennis-ball cricket, your weapon is the yorker, and you get the feel of bowling yorkers," said Tinu Yohannan, former India fast bowler and a central figure in the development of Thampi.
At age 19, Thampi considered quitting cricket and looking for a job in the Gulf, but he was convinced by a teammate to persist for a couple of years. Thampi was then sent to Yohannan, where he made the Kerala stalwart do a double take. “I was pretty surprised and impressed with what I saw: someone running in fast and bowling, with the naked eye I felt it was easily above 140.”
Thampi’s progression since then has been fast-tracked. He made his debut for Kerala, where Yohannan is now the bowling coach, at age 20. He was then picked in the MRF Pace Foundation, where he has been training since. His 2017 IPL season with Gujarat Lions saw him named Emerging Player of the Year, and he also earned two call-ups to the Indian team the same year.
Perhaps his tennis-ball beginnings have helped him stand apart. “Bowling a tennis-ball helps arm speed because we need to push the ball harder through the air," elucidates Yohannan. “You use those fast twitch muscles in the shoulders to accelerate the ball through.” Thampi also has a natural advantage when it comes to bowling yorkers. “He has a slingy action. And the ability to reverse the old ball.”
That natural ability has been honed at the MRF Pace Foundation. M Senthilnathan, chief coach there, gave an insight into how Thampi trains his specialist skill. “Two years back, before he was spotted by the IPL, he bowled hundreds of yorkers," he says. The habit of setting his own fields and dealing with the pressure of the death overs was also a part of the Pace Foundation pedagogy. “We do this training on the centre wicket," Senthilnathan says. “Unless he knows this is what I’m going to execute and I need this kind of field, he can’t convince the captain about what field he wants. So he has to set his field and bowl. We have good quality batsmen facing, and we give them match scenarios and targets; we really put them in a test. The pressure is created automatically.”
Senthilnathan cites this kind of training as the source of Thampi’s mental strength. On Sunday against Rajasthan Royals, after having conceded 17 in his first over, Thampi was given 20 to defend in the last over, against a set Ajinkya Rahane, who likes pace on the ball, and Krishnappa Gowtham, whose heroics had won a similar game against Mumbai. Thampi also had to contend with the small boundaries at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium. Though his yorkers were not quite pitch perfect, they were quick and full enough; he gave only nine runs in the over and picked up a wicket. “Once you know you can execute your yorkers, the tension is less," added Senthilnathan.
Thampi is far from a finished product, though, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts in the crucible of the IPL on days when he struggles to find the blockhole. His First-Class and List-A records are modest, but he did help Kerala make their first ever Ranji Trophy quarter-final last season. Naturally able to slant the ball in to the right-hander, Thampi is now also developing other facets of his game. “He has an awayswinger when he has good rhythm and good wrist positions," said Yohannan. “This Ranji season was about his fitness; being 100 percent fit all the time. He needs to work on moving the new ball more.”
SRH now sit at the top of the table with six wins out of eight, and in Thampi have found a replacement for the pace of Stanlake. While not quite like-for-like, Thampi has added value elsewhere, having been entrusted with the final over in all three games he has played. Not bad for the 24-year old who first bowled with the leather ball only at age 16.