Who’s the most popular Keralite in the Indian Premier League 2021? Sanju Samson or Devdutt Padikkal? Both have scored hundreds in Season 14. In fact, they are the only ones to have scored centuries this year. Enough reason to hitch your lungi at half-mast and cheer if you are Malayali.
Despite their success, the tales of these Keralites are a study in contrast. Samson, born and raised in Kerala, is the captain of the state. Padikkal hails from Kerala but has spent much of his life in Karnakata — the state he represents in domestic cricket. Both are phenomenal talents worthy of an India cap: that’s the only common trait.
Sanju Samson was a precocious teenager in Kerala when Rajasthan Royals’ coach Rahul Dravid selected him for the franchise. Samson repaid Dravid’s faith with a string of stirring performances. But those displays remained in the confines of the T20 league.
Every year Samson electrifies the IPL with his batting, sparking calls for his inclusion in the Indian team. And when he turns out for India, his scoring is limited to some audacious shots. That’s hardly the consistency required to retain his place.
Why Samson’s India prospects have dimmed?
Samson’s immediate future doesn’t look promising. As India wicketkeeper, Rishabh Pant has cemented his seat in all formats with some breathtaking batting that won matches for India. Then there’s Ishan Kishan waiting in the wings.
What about Samson’s prospects as a batsman? He can open the batting and play the middle order. But the problem is there are far too many players jostling for the slots. Opening? Even young Prithvi Shaw can’t cut it. Padikkal too is eyeing that. But no vacancy. Middle-order? Suryakumar Yadav’s remarkable consistency hasn’t given him a permanent berth. That’s the competition for the batting berths.
Given Samson’s notorious inconsistency, it’s difficult to see him mount a serious challenge for a place in the Indian team. He will be reduced to captaining the Rajasthan Royals and Kerala unless he regains his scoring prowess that has returned impressive aggregates in the past.
What makes Padikkal a better choice?
Right now, Padikkal’s India prospects are better than Samson’s. He’s young and left-handed: attributes that could interest the selectors. And the scoring rate too is very healthy, and he can graft as well. His IPL aggregate for the Royal Challengers Bangalore last year was the second-best behind captain Virat Kohli.
Padikkal’s parents are from Edappal, Kerala, and that makes him a Keralite. But he’s lived the life of a Kannadiga, having lived the best part of his formative years in Bangalore. He speaks fluent Kannada too.
Having learned his cricket in Bangalore, Padikkal plays for Karnataka in the domestic circuit. Representing Karnataka is a laudable feat given the huge reservoir of talent in the state. He represented Karnataka in age-group tournaments before finding a berth in the squads for the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy tournaments. In both the competitions, Padikkal became the leading run-getter in the 2019-20 season. A feat he repeated this year too.
The Royal Challengers Bangalore have high hopes for Padikkal. The 20-year-old scored more than 450 runs in 15 IPL matches last year to win the Emerging Player award. And he’s already notched an IPL century this year as Bangalore trounced Samson’s Rajasthan Royals.
So there’s little doubt about which Keralite is likely to make the India squad soon.
Who are the other Keralites in IPL?
Well, there are more Keralites in the IPL teams. The problem is they all have trouble getting a place in the playing XI. One player who could get a look in soon is Mohammed Azharudeen. He too was picked up Bangalore. So is Sachin Baby.
Then there’s Sandeep Warrier with the Kolkata Knight Riders. Karun Nair too is there, having been released by Punjab Kings (earlier, the Kings XI Punjab). Basil Thampi turns out for Sunrisers Hyderabad, while K.M. Asif remains with the Chennai Super Kings.
They are many others like Shreyas Iyer and Robin Uthappa, who have links with Kerala. But for now, let’s restrict ourselves to these cricketers from Kerala and their IPL prospects.
Mohammed Azharuddeen — Royal Challengers Bangalore
Note the spelling. So, he’s not stylish wristy great from Hyderabad. This is his namesake. He is indeed named after the former India captain. Ajmal was his mother’s choice, but the eldest of his seven brothers wanted him named Mohammed Azharuddeen.
It tells us that he comes from a family of cricket-lovers. Yes, he hails from the cricket-crazy village of Thalangara in Kasargode, a football-friendly district in football-loving Kerala. For non-Keralites, cricket in the southeastern Indian state is an anomaly. But for a Keralite, it’s no surprise that there are 26 cricket clubs in the nondescript village of Thalangara.
Back to Azharuddeen. By now, most people have heard of him, especially after he lashed the third fastest century in India. His 37-ball hundred helped Kerala defeat Mumbai in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Tournament. More significantly, it was Kerala’s first victory over Mumbai in any form of cricket.
At 26, Azharuddeen is no new talent. He’s been playing for Kerala since 2015, but his career meandered. Partly due to some personal tragedies. He took the losses of his mother and father very badly, and nearly quit cricket.
Even when he returned, his scoring never merited attention. The new Kerala coach Tinu Yohannan handed Azharuddeen the opener’s role, and he repaid that trust with the whirlwind knock against Mumbai. A century that landed him an IPL contract with the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Azharuddeen knows he may not make it to the playing XI, but he’s enjoying the experience. He’s thrilled to be in the company of Indian captain Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, and learn from them. A contract with the RCB ticks one off his bucket list that’s gone viral on social media. Others include a place in the Indian team for the 2023 World Cup.
First, he has to catch the attention of the selectors. A place in the RCB side and some good knocks would help.
Sandeep Warrier — Kolkata Knight Riders
Right-arm medium pace bowler
The Kerala medium-pacer is fully aware of the challenges of getting a game or two in the colours of Kolkata Knight Riders, a team packed with quality pace bowlers. Sandeep Warrier played only a game last year but picked up two wickets from three matches on his debut IPL season in 2019.
Warrier’s best moment this year came when he was named one of the five net bowlers for India in the recent series against England. It helped hone his skills as he bowled to some of the best in the country.
Born in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, Warrier was signed by Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2013. Although he spent three years without playing a game, the stint helped him learn from India bowlers Zaheer Khan and Praveen Kumar. It paved the way for his best domestic season in 2018-19 when bagged 44 wickets from 10 matches to set up Kerala’s maiden entry into the Ranji Trophy semifinals. He also claimed a hat-trick in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament.
Warrier, 30, now plays for Tamil Nadu and is into his third season for KKR.
Basil Thampi — Sunrisers Hyderabad
Right-arm medium pace bowler
Basil Thampi can clock over 140 kmph, nail yorkers and reverse swing the old ball. He’s been with the Sunrisers Hyderabad for four years and has played only a handful of games with modest returns. His best IPL effort was for the Gujarat Lions in 2017.
After his move to the SRH, Thampi hasn’t been able to break into the side which have some fine medium-pacers like Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Sandeep Sharma, T. Natarajan, Khaleel Ahmed and Siddarth Kaul. Last year, he made only one appearance and this year his chances are slimmer.
Born in Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district of Kerala, Thampi forged a pace attack with Sandeep Warrier that lifted Kerala to the semifinals in the Ranji Trophy. His fiery spells gained him a place in the Indian squad for Twenty20 International against Sri Lanka in November 2017. His displays in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy tournaments fetched him the Emerging Player Award in 2017 and a contract with the Gujarat Lions.
His career graph has stalled since then. He needs some impressive displays to catch the eye of SRH skipper David Warner and coach Trevor Bayliss.
K.M. Asif — Chennai Super Kings
Right-arm medium pace bowler
Check out the list of luminaries from Malappuram, a football-crazy district in Kerala. You will find the name of K. Mohammed Asif, a cricketer. A key member of the Kerala side that has been doing well in the domestic circuit, Asif plays for the Chennai Super Kings.
Although Asif has been with CSK since 2018, his appearances have been limited to two games in 2018. That’s no reflection of his talent. It’s just that the Chennai side is packed with pacers like Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur and foreign imports like Luigi Ngidi and Sam Curran.
Asif has no complaints. He’s happy to be in a franchise team led by former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and has been picking up variations that are handy in white-ball cricket. More importantly, he’s happy making a living playing cricket.
Cricket has always been his passion. And twice he’s quit jobs in the UAE to pursue his passion. That’s an enormous decision for a person whose family had no house and was struggling to make ends meet. For Asif, his passion was more overpowering than the poverty at home.
Born in Edavanna, Malappuram, Asif was a good footballer who turned to cricket on the advice of Surendran, a teacher at the G.V. Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram. It was a big leap for Asif, who was only familiar with tennis-ball cricket.
After training under Biju George, the fielding coach of Kolkata Knight Riders, his remarkable performances in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy tournaments caught the attention of IPL scouts. Soon he was on his way to Chennai, stopping in between to bowl at the nets for the Kolkata Knight Riders.
After three years with Chennai, the 28-year-old is still struggling to find a place in the CSK line-up. But he hasn’t given up hope. He says the stint with CSK has helped improve his repertoire, and the lives of his parents and siblings.
Sachin Baby — Royal Challengers Bangalore
Left-hand batsman and right-arm off-spinner
Sachin Baby is back in the IPL after two years in the wilderness. Turning out in the red and gold colours of the Royal Challengers Bangalore this year, the IPL journeyman has played for the Rajasthan Royals and the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Baby’s white-ball skills landed him a contract with the Rajasthan Royals in 2013. It came on the back of some heaving scoring in the Vijay Hazare Trophy tournament, where his century carried Kerala into the semifinals. But Baby played only four IPL matches (he batted only once) before fading away.
He surfaced three years later with a contract from RCB. Although Baby played 11 matches he was traded off to the Sunrisers Hyderabad the following year. After three games with the Orange squad, he headed for IPL oblivion before RCB signed him this year.
In between, Baby captained Kerala to their best moment in Ranji Trophy — a semifinal appearance in 2019. But soon, he became the target of a player insurrection in the state.
Baby, who was named after the Indian batting genius Sachin Tendulkar, has 12 years of first-class cricket behind him. His white-ball skills have served Kerala well, but Baby is unlikely to find a spot in the RCB playing XI this year.
Karun Nair — Kolkata Knight Riders
Right-hand batsman & right-arm offbreak bowler
Like Devdutt Padikkal, Karun Nair too is a Bangalore boy. Alright, he’s Malayali. That’s by birth. His parents hail from Chengannur, Alappuzha, the Venice of Kerala. Nair’s links with Gods Own Country end there. He learned his cricket in Bangalore and represented Karnataka.
Nair's career hit a peak when he represented India and the troughs when he was stripped off the Karnataka captaincy due to his poor run of scores. His IPL career too has suffered, but he secured a contract with the Kolkata Knight Riders this year.
He’s a triple centurion, the only Indian after Virender Sehwag. That’s what Nair will be remembered for. He’s only the third cricketer to convert his maiden century into a triple hundred, but since then, Nair’s career graph has nosedived inexplicably. He was dropped in the next Test, and fell out of favour.
The Indian selectors’ snub scarred him so badly that he never recovered. A batsman with immaculate technique, Nair didn’t help his cause, unable to capitalise on the subsequent opportunities. Even in the domestic games, he couldn’t regain consistency. Although he shared the Karnataka captaincy duties with Manish Pandey in 2019, Nair’s inability to find form cost him the captaincy.
IPL 2020 was very crucial for Nair, but his patchy displays limited his appearance to four games for the King XI Punjab (the present Punjab Kings), who traded him to the Kolkata. Interestingly, he had scored more than 300 runs for Punjab in 2018, only to be benched the next year. But then that has been the Nair’s cricketing life story.
Nair has had a good run in the IPL, having turned out for Royal Challengers Bangalore, Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils, before signing up for Punjab in 2018. He’s scored plenty of runs for all these teams at a fair clip. That was until his fortunes soured.
The stint with KKR this year is unlikely to revive Nair’s career. Kolkata have a super-talented batting line-up, although it has misfired more often. The misfortunes of Kolkata could offer a sliver of a chance for Nair.