Basil Thampi - Sanju Samson
Basil Thampi of the Mumbai Indians and Sanju Samson of the Rajasthan Royals in action at the Tata India Premier League 2022. They are the only two Keralites who have played in the league this season. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

Who are the Kerala players in the Indian Premier League? Sanju Samson, of course. That’s a no-brainer if you are from Kerala. Samson’s name always crops up in the IPL debates of Malayalis, and that explains their support for the Rajasthan Royals.

Is Samson the only Keralite in IPL 2022? No, there’s Basil Thampi in the Mumbai Indians squad. K.M. Asif is still with the Chennai Super Kings, and the Sunrisers Hyderabad bought Vishnu Vinod. 

What about Devdutt Padikkal? Karun Nair? Hang on! Their parents hail from Kerala, but the two learnt their cricket in Bangalore and represent Karnataka in domestic tournaments. They may converse in Malayalam, but Kerala cannot claim credit for their cricketing skills.

The Robin Uthappa link

What about Robin Uthappa of the Chennai Super Kings? He plays for Kerala. Even captained the south Indian state for a while. As his name suggests, Uthappa comes from Coorg (the Kodagu region of Karnataka), so he’s not a Malayali. Uthappa, a guest player for Kerala, has links to the state through his mother, Roselyn, who hails from Kozhikode.

That leaves the Malayalis with four cricketers in the league. Thirteen players from Kerala, including former Indian mediumpacer Sreesanth, went under the hammer. Only Thampi, Asif and Vinod were bought by franchises in the mega auction, while Samson, the Royals captain, was retained by the franchise for 140 million rupees (around Dh6.65 million).

13 Keralites at the auction

None of the teams showed interest in Sreesanth, Sachin Baby, S. Midhun, M.D. Nidheesh, Mohammed Azharuddeen, Rohan Kunnummal, Sijomon Joseph and Shoun Roger. Jalaj Saxena from Madhya Pradesh plays for Kerala, and he was part of the Punjab Kings last season but went unsold at the auction.

Now you know why Keralites clamour for news on Samson. Of the four Kerala stars in the IPL, only Samson commands a regular place in the playing XI. As skipper of the Rajasthan Royals, his captaincy frequently comes under the scanner. Why did he bring on Riyan Parag? What was he thinking when he threw the ball to Daryl Mitchell? Malayalis would lament after these overs turned out to be very costly.

Samson is not a natural leader. He’s soft-spoken and reticent. Very reserved too. Not ideal traits for a good captain. You don’t have to be a Virat Kohli or an Ian Chappell; Mike Brearley and Mahendra Singh Dhoni have led teams superbly without overt aggression. But then they have been wonderful communicators and, more importantly, read the match situations very well.

Samson the captain and batsman

For a cricket captain, tactical nous is very important. Because the match situations are fluid and the dressing room plans can quickly go haywire. So captains are often judged on their onfield decisions. But the IPL throws out that argument too. They have strategic time-outs, which allow the coaches to tinker with the game plan. I have watched Rishabh Pant and Samson make unconventional bowling choices soon after these breaks. That means the advice would have come from the coaches. But captains have to take the flak if the decisions misfire.

The best captains often have had their reputations burnished in adverse situations. Every crisis requires strong leadership to lift the team with pep talks, make bold field placements and encourage bowlers to give off their best. I’m yet to see inspiring moves from Samson, whose head goes down and his body language becomes limp when matches are slipping away. All that has to change.

How did Samson fare as a batsman? The regular IPL offering from Samson is a couple of whirlwind knocks, including a century at the start of the season. Then he slips into mediocrity for an extended period before returning with some fighting half centuries. This has been the pattern, but it’s different this time. No centuries yet, and no fighting knocks either. He’s had plenty of starts but only two half-centuries in 11 games. Maybe, he’s saving his best for the last, now that Rajasthan looks set to make the playoffs.

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What about the other Keralites? Thampi played the first four games for Mumbai, but Vinod (Sunrisers Hyderabad) and Asif (Chennai Super Kings) are unlikely to get a game this season.

Thampi had enough opportunities to show his mettle. In the absence of Trent Boult, the Mumbai Indians opened the attack with the Kerala pacer since they wanted to keep Jasprit Bumrah for the middle overs. But Thampi never could get the breakthroughs in the powerplays and leaked runs badly in some matches. He returned a three-wicket haul once, and five wickets in five games didn’t engender much confidence as Mumbai struggled in search of a win in the first nine games.

That brings us back to Samson, who’s got Padikkal and Karun Nair on the team. So, some of the conversations in the Rajasthan dressing room could be in Malayalam. Recently Samson’s teammates paid tribute to the captain by turning out in lungis, a popular attire in Kerala. Don’t be surprised if the players break into a lungi dance if Rajasthan win their second IPL title.

Will they win? Their chances are as good any other team’s. After all, this is cricket. T20 cricket!