As the entire Kerala team was piled-up in a rugby-like scrum after making their maiden Ranji Trophy semifinal appearance, under the gaze of the misty Kolagappara Hills overlooking the Krishnagiri stadium, fast bowler Sandeep Warrier was searching for the cricket ball.
Another claimant, Basil Thampi, reasoned that the ball remains with the one that took five-wickets. Sandeep, though, argued that both had nabbed equal wickets in the match, eight. That’s when they noticed that the third in their pace-pack MD Nidheesh walking slyly, evading eye contact, into the dressing room. Sandeep instantly realised the culprit and called out his name, upon which Nidheesh shouted: “I’ll keep this with me, otherwise you’ll die fighting for it between yourselves.”
For Basil and Sandeep, though, it was a piece of ragged leather worth dying for. It not only wrought the finest moment yet in Kerala’s cricket history but also symbolised their finest cricketing hour. Basil has been part of the national T20 squad and Indian Premier League; Sandeep has featured in an emerging series and shared dressing-room space with luminaries Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Zaheer Khan; Nidheesh had ripped the stumps of Brendon McCullum and Mahela Jayawardene as a net bowler in the Kochi Tuskers camp and is now in the Mumbai Indians payroll.
But all three had no hesitation in putting the historic Ranji moment above all their individual feats and fat cheques. Sandeep put it most powerfully: “We showed we are winners, not just fighters.”
It’s yet unwise to pinpoint the feat as Kerala cricket’s coming-of-age moment, but under-toned in his words were 62 years of collective hurt and humiliation, when Kerala were whipped around effortlessly, when adversaries licked their lips at the prospect of runs and wickets, when their competence sporadically surfaced, and when they were just about a couple of famous names.
A Sanju Samson, or Sreesanth, or before that K Anantha Padmanabhan and Tinu Yohannan. So frugal was the cricketing talent from the state that the media and public took pride in the scattered Kerala roots of international cricketers like Ajay Jadeja, whose mother was from the state, or Abey Kuruvilla, who was raised in Mumbai.
Long time since they shunned such desperation—in the last decade, more players have popped up from the state—but seldom in their history could they brag about so many names or so fearsome a troika of fast bowlers as Basil, Sandeep and Nidheesh. Among them, they have nabbed 86 wickets at 21 this season, that is two third of the wickets Kerala have taken this season, on varied surfaces and with varied tricks, a miniature template of the national team’s success.
The six-foot-four Sandeep coaxes disconcerting bounce even from sluggish surfaces, Basil is whippy and quick, Nidheesh pounds the deck hard and is skiddy.
Warrier procures reverse swing—he cherishes his tricks with the old ball at Eden Gardens as his finest effort—and has developed an incisive inswinger. Basil, besides his pace and yorker-efficiency, can move the ball both ways in helpful climes. Nidheesh’s outswingers have been a revelation this season. And all three can consistently clock between 135 and 140kmps.
But it hasn’t been as incidental as assembling three fine bowlers and putting them on autopilot mode. When Dav Whatmore took over the reins from former fast bowler Tinu Yohannan, they were were far from priceless bowlers. The talent was evident, but consistency and collectiveness weren’t. Sandeep’s malaise was accuracy. “I used to get a little carried away by the conditions and try to bowl too hard and end up spraying the ball all over. Also there were times when I just tried to bounce out the batsmen,” he says.
Basil, at the same time, was struggling to adjust to the long-form lengths. His weapon of choice, yorkers, were not as deceptive in red-ball cricket as it’s in the white-ball game. “I knew I can’t be a top first-class bowler with just yorkers. But it took some a while to develop other aspects of the game, like the ability to swing the ball both and being accurate while doing it,” he confides.
Nidheesh, meanwhile, got into a defensive mindset. “I was mostly the first-change bowler, so I thought my primary role was to keep an end tight. But now I have learnt to keep the end tight as well as attack the batsman, mix my lengths up and have regained my out-swinger,” he says.
All three picked the brains of the the bowling figureheads of their IPL squads. From Zaheer, Sandeep realised the influence of the non-bowling arm in relation to their alignment; Lasith Malinga instructed Nidheesh not to even think of bowling restrictive lines, Glenn McGrath, meanwhile, advised Basil to pull his length back in first-class games. For motivation, all three would speed-dial former India fast bowler S Sreesanth. Says Basil: “Whenever I feel low, I give him a call and he cheers me.”
Warrier, sometimes, misses him on the field. “When I made by debut (in 2012-13), Sree used to stand at mid-on and keep encouraging me, admonishing me and telling me what I needed to to. Even now when I have some doubts, I call him and even if he’s busy he spares time for me,” says Sandeep.
Nidheesh remembers Sreesanth taking him to the Kochi Tuskers nets, introducing him to the big names and telling him: “Now show them who you are.” He also helped him with his seam position. “Mine is not as good as Sree bhai’s but still it’s much better than what it used to be,” he says.
All of it has made the life of Baby and Whatmore less strenuous. But it was Whatmore who drilled into them the need to understand each other’s craft. “It’s important to understand what your fellow bowler is doing and look to try and complement him. Like Basil is someone who looks for wickets from the first ball. So I have to ensure that I don’t bowl loose balls. Similarly Basil understands that I take time to find the rhythm, so he pumps the aggression from the other end,” explains Sandeep.
This understanding, Sandeep says, has forged a brotherly bond. That’s when they are not fighting for the souvenir balls.