Sanju Samson is the best-known cricketer from Kerala. No arguments there. Well, Sreesanth is no longer around. But then he made news off the pitch than on it. So Samson should be the most popular Malayali in the Indian Premier League.
What about Karun Nair? Does he qualify as a Kerala player? Technically not. He may be a Malayali, but he never played for Kerala. Nair scored tons of runs for Karnataka, but not one for Kerala. He still is a Malayali. After all, his parents are from Kerala. And he speaks more than a smattering of Malayalam.
If Nair fits the bill, then Abey Kuruvilla of Mumbai and Delhi’s Sunil Valson too can claim to be Kerala players. All of them are Keralites. Malayalis. But they are not Kerala players. So let’s stick with Samson.
Samson and Nair are not the only Keralites in IPL. At least four more Malayalis are turning out for the matches in the UAE.
Why does it matter? Because Keralites form 40 per cent of the Indians in the UAE. So when these six Malayalis take the field, around 700,000 Keralites in the UAE will be watching them. No pressure, makkale (children).
Let’s look at the six Malayali cricketers in IPL 2020.
Sanju Samson — Rajasthan Royals
Wicketkeeper & right-hand batsman
Samson has been an exciting stroke-maker for Rajasthan Royals since his debut in 2013. Mentored by former India captain Rahul Dravid, Samson has scored more than 200 runs every season. He was at his prolific best in 2018, racking up 441 runs.
Last year too, Samson was in imperious form, slamming a century in an aggregate of 342. India pacer Bhuvaneshwar Kumar will remember that onslaught, having conceded 24 runs in an over. Samson’s IPL strike rate too has been phenomenal, at over 100. Barring two seasons with the Delhi Daredevils, Samson has been a permanent fixture in the Rajasthan side.
Born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, Sanju Viswanath Samson rose through the ranks on the strength of some stirring performances. He served notice with a double ton in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and soon found a berth in the India Under-19 squad. He was the vice-captain in 2013.
IPL was the perfect stage to showcase Samson’s strokeplay, and he did well to become the Emerging Player of the Season in 2013. His consistent displays for Rajasthan fetched him a place in the Indian squad and toured England for 2014 for the limited over games.
The 25-year-old has played four T20 internationals without making an impact. Why couldn’t Samson translate his domestic success on the international stage? The answer came in an interview with the Indian magazine, Sportsar. “In T20 cricket, you have to score quickly; that’s what I have been doing at the IPL over the years. You can’t waste 10 balls when Virat Kohli is padded up to bat next.”
That may be true. But Samson would know that he cannot stake a claim in the Indian side without a string of memorable knocks.
Back to IPL. That’s been his stomping ground, having scored more than 2,000 runs — the youngest to cross that milestone. He will set the league alight this year too. All the Malayali chettanmar (brothers) will be on their feet.
Karun Nair — Kings XI Punjab
Right-hand batsman & right-arm offbreak bowler
IPL 2020 is very crucial to Karun Nair’s career. For, he had a forgettable season last year when his appearance was limited to one game. That was strange considering that he was the third-highest run-getter the previous year with 301 runs. Part of the problem was Kings XI Punjab’s strong middle order.
Nair has had a good run in the IPL, having turned out for Royal Challengers Bangalore, Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils, before being signed up by the Kings XI Punjab in 2018. He’s scored plenty of runs for all these teams at a fair clip. That was until his fortunes soured last year.
Born Karun Kaladharan Nair in Chengannur, Alappuzha, the Venice of Kerala, he learned his cricket in Bangalore and went on to represent Karnataka. Soon after his Ranji Trophy debut, Karun scored several centuries in succession as Karnataka went on to win the title. His run-scoring was a crucial factor in Karnataka defending the title next year.
Nair’s international career is shrouded in mystery. His prolific scoring attracted the attention of national selectors and Nair made his India debut in the One-Day International tie against New Zealand in 2016. He soon earned the Test cap, and a scored a triple century in only his third Test. Nair is India’s only triple centurion after Virender Sehwag. After that, he fell off the India squad.
For Karnataka, Nair continued to be a key player as he kept piling runs. But the India selectors continued to ignore his claims. His omission will remain as one of the enduring mysteries of Indian cricket.
IPL in the UAE affords Nair another opportunity to bounce back. But first, he needs to be in the playing XI. So he’ll only be too keen to grab the chances that come his way. Poyi, adichu polikkada (Go and smash them to smithereens). That would be the Mallu advice.
K.M. Asif — Chennai Super Kings
Right-arm medium pace bowler
For Kerala speedster K.M. Asif, wearing the Chennai Super Kings colours is beyond his wildest dreams. Now, having broken into the big league, he must be looking at finding a place in the playing XI. That’s no easy task.
After his IPL debut for CSK in 2018, Asif hardly got a look in last year. He should be keen to change that. That would require some solid bowling in the nets to catch the eye of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming. So the priority now is to secure a place in the team. The rest can follow.
Born in Edavanna, Malappuram, the football-crazy district of Kerala, K. Mohammed Asif too kicked the ball around and was quite good at it. His acquaintance with Surendran, a teacher at the G.V. Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram, prompted to take cricket more seriously.
For Asif, tennis ball cricket used to be fun. The admission to the sports school changed all that. Later he began to training under Biju George, the fielding coach of Kolkata Knight Riders. After two unsuccessful stints in the UAE to earn a living, Asif turned his attention to cricket again.
A few stirring displays for Kerala in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, where some of his deliveries clocked over 140 kmph, caught the attention of IPL scouts. Soon he was on his way to Chennai, stopping in between to bowl at the nets for Kolkata Knight Riders.
After two years with Chennai, the 27-year-old must be looking at a more fulfilling role. In the UAE, all his friends and former colleagues will be praying for Asif. They must be saying: Po mone, Asife (Go son Asif, is a poor translation that fails to capture the emotion behind it).
Devdutt Padikkal — Royal Challengers Bangalore
There are shades of Karun Nair in Devdutt Padikkal. Born in Kerala, playing for Karnataka. With plenty of success. The similarities end there. At 20 years, Padikkal has a long career ahead of him. He hasn’t played an IPL match, although he was part of the RCB squad last year. But this year could well be a turning point in his IPL career.
RCB coach Simon Katich expects a lot from this youngster. And skipper Virat Kohli too banks on youngsters to give the side the impetus to land their maiden title.
Born in Edappal, Kerala, Devdutt Padikkal’s family moved from Hyderabad to Bangalore, where he spent his formative years. He learned his cricket at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket under the watchful eyes of coach Naseeruddin. He went on to represent Karnataka in age-group tournaments before finding a berth in the squads for the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. In both the tournaments, Padikkal emerged as the leading run-getter in the 2019-20 season.
Padikkal also had a profitable outing in the Karnataka Premier League (KPL), where he produced some match-winning knocks. In the Ranji Trophy too, he has had an impressive run. Across formats, he scored over 1,000 runs last year.
Mike Hesson, RCB’s director of cricket, had watched Padikkal at close quarters. This is what he told ESPNcricinfo: “With his ability to see his side through to victory from the top of the order rather than just play cameos in the middle order which I saw during the KPL, he has shown further speedy development in his game. The ability to adapt to situations and swap between formats is difficult for any experienced player. So to be able to do that with such success this season, at 19 years of age, is incredibly impressive.”
Now comes the most challenging part: Finding a spot in the star-studded RCB team. Padikkal will get his chances in the UAE since his captain Virat Kohli rates him very highly. He has to make full use of the opportunities that come his way.
Sandeep Warrier — Kolkata Knight Riders
Right-arm medium pace bowler
Kerala medium-pacer Sandeep Warrier picked up only two wickets from three matches in his debut IPL season in 2019. He will have to do better to break into the Kolkata Knight Riders team. It sure is an uphill task, but he’s to show his mettle to gain a spot in the side.
Warrier had a brilliant season in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season bagging 44 wickets from 10 matches, and pivotal role in Kerala’s maiden entry into the semifinals. Those performances didn’t go unnoticed. The IPL call-up is a reward for that consistency.
Born in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, Sankarankutty Sandeep Warrier was signed by Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2013. He spent three years there without playing a game, but that stint helped him learn from India bowlers Zaheer Khan and Praveen Kumar.
Those lessons were put to good for Kerala in the Ranji Trophy, and in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament where he claimed a hat-trick. Now that Warrier has a second season with Kolkata, he should make his presence felt.
Warrier, 29, now plays for Tamil Nadu, but that wouldn’t stop the Malayalis in the UAE from supporting him.
Basil Thampi — Sunrisers Hyderabad
Right-arm medium pace bowler
Pace has been a striking feature of Basil Thampi’s bowling. He clocks over 140 kmph, can bowl some mean yorkers and reverse swing the old ball. These attributes have fetched him a few games for Sunrisers Hyderabad but haven’t been able to command a regular place in the team. Thampi, 26, needs more playing time, or else his career will meander. He has to work up a sweat in the nets and impress captain David Warner and coach Trevor Bayliss.
With Sandeep Warrier, Thampi had forged a pace combination that catapulted Kerala to the semifinals in the Ranji Trophy. His fiery pace and probing spells caught the attention of selectors. The reward came in the form of a berth in the Indian squad for Twenty20 International against Sri Lanka in November 2017. He didn’t play, but that was the closest he came to an India cap.
Born in Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district of Kerala, Basil Thampi could well have been working in Gulf like so many expatriates from the state. Instead, he chose cricket. Excellent spells in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy fetched him the Emerging Player Award in 2017, and a contract with the Gujarat Lions.
Thampi snapped up 11 wickets for Gujarat in his inaugural IPL season in displays good enough to evoke in Sunrisers Hyderabad. In the past two years with Hyderabad, Thampi played only seven games. Yet he’s optimistic of more playing time in IPL 2020.
“This coming season I want to do well. The most important thing is if I get a chance, I want to do well for the team. I want to win matches for the team. From the last experience, I learnt a lot from this team,” Thampi told PTI, after a match-winning performance that helped Kerala create history by entering the Ranji Trophy semifinals for the first time.
If that form is any guide, Thampi could well have a good IPL.