Basil Thampi likes to call it a ‘funny moment’ and he starts guffawing even before he begins to narrate the incident.
It’s not that clip of David Warner handing him back his shoe, which came off in the follow through. Thampi takes you back to this season’s Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy when he touched speeds of 140-plus kmph during the live telecast.
By the time Thampi returned home to Perumbavoor, he was hailed as the next pace bowling sensation from Kerala, a topic of discussion at tea stall chats. His mother though, wasn’t amused. She would watch with dread that violent slingy release that made it look like his right arm would come off.
“That was the first time I clocked 140-plus. I was not sure how fast I was earlier. Everyone was excited but my mother asked me why I was unnecessarily swinging my arm so fast and told me not to exert so much. She was worried that I would hurt myself. ‘Bowl slowly’ she told me. I told her, I’d listen to her,” Thampi says.
Those advising the 23-year-old to not compromise on his pace were fast bowling greats — Jeff Thompson and Glenn McGrath who coached him at the MRF Pace Foundation. And he’d listen.
In his maiden IPL season, the Gujarat Lions rookie has dismissed T20’s most-feared hitters — Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Manish Pandey. “These are the kind of batsmen you dream of getting out. When I get a wicket it is the ‘best feeling’,” Thampi says.
Pace is his asset, but the delivery which Thampi calls his ‘weapon’ is the yorker. RCB’s Gayle was beaten when one such toe-crusher struck him. The lbw gave Thampi his first IPL wicket and the yorker, which is his calling card, has since gained a reputation.
The IPL, however, is not Thampi’s first brush with stardom. He had a cult-following in another form of floodlit cricket, the six-over a side tennis-ball games back in Kerala, a football-mad state that has a less-famous passion for cricket too.
Typically, these matches began at midnight, yet drew packed houses as word spread about the boy who bowled yorkers at will. “The grounds were small. If you didn’t want to get hit in tennis-ball cricket, you had to bowl the yorker. Sometimes we played two to three matches a day. I had loyal fans who would turn up to watch me bowl even at 1 am,” Thampi says.
Viswajit Radhakrishnan, secretary of the Perumbavoor Cricket Club, had encouraged Thampi to make a career out of bowling fast. Radhakrishnan cajoled him to leave his comfort zone and join the Swantons Cricket Club in Kochi, a one-hour drive from his hometown. Within a year, Thampi was playing age-group cricket for Kerala.
But the teenager wasn’t sure about cricket. He didn’t believe that one could make a living by bowling yorkers.
The first sign of him giving up cricket came when he deliberately didn’t turn up for an important league match Swantons was playing.
He had set his sights on going to the ‘gulf’ — like so many around him. His friends from the tennis ball circuit had already left for greener pastures and Thampi wanted to supplement the family income. His father, a caterer, owned a shop that specalised in banana chips. The family of modest means would have been more comfortable with a second earning member.
“I had a younger sister too and I felt it was my responsibility to do something for the family. I informed Swantons that I was unavailable,” Thampi says.
CM Deepak, the former Kerala wicket-keeper in-charge of the club, was having none of it.
He wanted Swantons’ star player to stay back. The club had fallen on hard times after the demise, in 2003, of coach NS Krishnan — the revered father figure of the 53-year-old club.
Thampi, with his eye-catching athletic run-up and raw pace, had created a buzz around the club again. Deepak, desperate to revive the club’s legacy of producing state-level cricketers, sought a heart-to-heart with Thampi. The meeting happened at the late NS Krishnan’s home — a place that had a big emotional bond with all Swantonians. This is where the Swantons boys hung around to discuss match plans and watch televised games. The coach’s wife Shyamala, affectionately called mami by them, indulged the budding cricketers. She was a ‘cricket mom’ to many.
At the meeting, Deepak would jog the unsure cricketer’s happy Swantons memories, talk of the departed coach and of high hopes that everybody at the club had from him. Thampi felt the emotional tug. By the end, both were teary-eyed. “It was an emotional meeting. I didn’t want Thampi to throw away his talent. He was quick, even faster than Tinu Yohannan. I urged him to give cricket some more time, at least till he completed his studies,” Deepak says.
Deepak promised to sponsor Thampi’s trip to Chennai where he would play for Chemplast and be under the wings of Yohannan. The youngster took up the offer and was soon bowling to the likes of Test opener Murali Vijay. When he landed a job with Chemplast, the gulf dreams were put on hold, for good.
Word would spread and national selectors were soon talking about the new 140kph plus bowler from Kerala with those dangerous yorkers that tailed in very late. This was also the time the Indian Test squad, preparing for the visiting Australians, was looking for real speedsters to bowl at them during practice. Thampi got an invitation to join the Indian Test team as a net bowler. The timing was perfect as the IPL auction was just around the corner. Thampi was now bowling to men who had a big say in deciding the ‘big ticket’ auction buys.
February 20, 2017 remains a special day for Thampi. The IPL auction was about to start and here he was marking his run-up at the India nets. “Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya were in the nets. I had been bowling to them for about half an hour and was starting to tire a bit,” Thampi recalls.
That’s when the Indian team’s video analyst informed Thampi that the Gujarat Lions had bought him for Rs 85 lakh. Thampi recalls the ‘khidilan feeling’ — a term used to express extreme joy in colloquial Malayalam. “I don’t know what I bowled in the India nets after that. But I felt renewed energy,” Thampi says.
For Gujarat Lions, Thampi has taken nine wickets in 10 games and held his own against some of the best hitters in the game with a mix of yorkers, slower balls and an action that helps him reverse swing the ball. He has begun to set goals for himself. “I am not someone who dreams big. I have always had small dreams. But now I have started looking ahead. I have to admit that I would like to wear the blue jersey someday soon.”
Meanwhile, the mother still grimaces when her son lets it rip. Of late, she has started to smile more since Thampi has got into the habit of shattering stumps, and reputations.