April 18, 2017. Gujarat Lions are being battered by Royal Challengers Bangalore on their home turf, in Rajkot. Desperate for a breakthrough, Suresh Raina turns to 23-year-old Basil Thampi. The Kerala fast bowler is in his debut season. He has had a decent first spell, but now has the unenviable task of running in to a marauding Chris Gayle.
His second ball is a searing yorker. Gayle tries to dig it out, but it sneaks through and misses leg stump. It spurs Thampi on. The follow-up delivery is another dart, flush on Gayle's toes. He tries to flick but the ball curves in and pins him in front of the stumps. Thampi has his first IPL wicket, and it's of a man who, less than an hour ago, had become the first to 10,000 runs in T20 cricket.
Thampi would go on to take ten more wickets in the tournament. He finished as Lions' second-highest wicket-taker and one of their finds in a disappointing season. It was with the yorker that he left a mark. Thampi bowled 23 of them during the IPL, second only to Lasith Malinga.
A month after his IPL exploits, he was picked in India A's limited-overs squad to tour South Africa.
While that wicket of Gayle remains his most cherished one from the season, Thampi remembers especially fondly both of Lions' matches against Mumbai Indians. In the first, at the Wankhede, he landed six inch-perfect yorkers against Rohit Sharma and Kieron Pollard, including in the slog overs of a tense chase. Then, in Rajkot, he bounced back from a 13-run first over to finish with 3 for 29, including two wickets in the 19th over, to take the match into the Super Over.
"What I enjoyed the most about him is that most of the time, you could see him in the present. He is not into ifs and buts" Monty Desai, Lions' performance coach, on Thampi
Thampi created an impression during the Lions' pre-season camp with his boldness to experiment, his keenness to ask questions, and his enthusiasm in approaching tasks. He honed his craft with Heath Streak, the bowling coach, by placing a coin in front of the stumps and trying to hit it.
It was at a private camp in Bengaluru, a few months before the auction, that he caught the discerning eye of Monty Desai, Lions' performance coach. Desai had already heard about Thampi's pace from Sanju Samson, who also plays for Kerala, when the two worked together at Rajasthan Royals. Lions' management had identified death-overs bowling as the biggest area of concern for the side, and to Desai, Thampi looked an asset.
"Basil brings 100% intent in execution over his spell," Desai says. "You see how players are able to rise to the occasion, and I thought Thampi was able to do that for Kerala. So many times you felt that the game was gone and his spell made a difference to the team.
"He's got hit for six off many of those yorkers in the IPL, but there was an effort that batsmen had to take to hit him because they could not take him lightly. I thought the slower ball and yorker skill was something special, and at the pace at which he bowls, it added up as a good complement."
Desai had had a glimpse of Thampi during the televised games of the inter-zonal T20 league. "At that point, myself and Hodgie [Brad Hodge] were just online, discussing pretty much every ball of his. One of the things you're looking for is whether a player is a good student of the game. He is constantly looking to improve himself.
"What I enjoyed the most about him is that most of the time, you could see him in the present. He is not into ifs and buts. That gives a lot of confidence to the captain as well; he's a captain's bowler."
February 20, 2017. The day of the auction was a special one for Thampi for more than the obvious reasons. He had clocked 140-plus in South Zone matches, and word had spread to the Indian camp. Ahead of the first Test in Pune, Thampi received a call to join the team's net session to help them prepare for the visiting Australians' pace attack.
"The video analyst told me, 'Basil, you have been picked by Gujarat Lions for 85 lakhs', and I was like, 'Woo,'" he says with a laugh. The sum was over eight times his base price.
Thampi comes from a small town called Iringole, near Perumbavoor in Kerala, where his father runs a small business selling chips. His initiation into leather-ball cricket came rather late, when he was 16. Growing up in a state that is known for its fondness for football, Thampi grew up playing that sport. It wasn't until he watched a cricket match at a local ground that he made contact with Vishwajit Prasad, who was running the Perumbavoor Cricket Club.
"Two days before a league game, they rolled out a mat in our ground. It was very green, which made me just want to go there and bowl," he says.
"He told me, 'Whatever you do, don't let the pace drop.' That is something I have been carrying through my career" Thampi on Jeff Thomson's advice
Thampi's wish was fulfilled when he was invited by Vishwajit to bowl, and he immediately impressed the coach by generating bounce. Asked if he was interested in playing cricket, Thampi said yes. "He gave me shoes and a uniform. The league was starting and I took five wickets in the first match and finished as the top wicket-taker in that tournament."
Having started out playing Under-16 and Under-17 district matches, Thampi had worked his way up to the Under-19s when he started harbouring ambitions of playing for Kerala. He got there, but somewhere along the way, he was lured into walking away from the grind of sport and settling down. At 19, Thampi, playing for Swantons in Ernakulam South, sought the security of a steady income and a normal life. He did not believe cricket could provide for him and his family, and decided that he wanted to move to Dubai and start working.
It took an hour-long counselling session from CM Deepak, the Kerala wicketkeeper-batsman, who referred him to Tinu Yohannan, the former India fast bowler. "He [Deepak] said to give it two more years and then do whatever you want," Thampi says.
Thampi worked with Yohannan in Chennai for about three months. He then received a call from Kerala to play in practice matches, and subsequently made it to the senior T20 team.
The time in Chennai also included a fruitful stint at the MRF Pace Academy, where he was under the eyes of Glenn McGrath and M Senthilnathan, the chief coach. "Because I came from tennis-ball cricket, with my body alignment, it was difficult to bowl," he explains. "They didn't touch my action that much because I naturally have pace. So what they did was correct my body alignment, running technique, and I also improved my fitness."
Thampi also had an encounter with Jeff Thomson during the ten-day camp. "He told me, 'Whatever you do, don't let the pace drop.' That is something I have been carrying through my career, because whether it was Thomson, Tinu Yohanan, McGrath or Senthilnathan, they all told me the same thing, which was to not compromise on pace."
Thampi still works with Yohannan, trying to learn how to swing the ball, which he admits he needs to do to succeed in first-class cricket.
The IPL contract has meant Thampi has seen big money fairly early in his career, but the virtues inculcated by a middle-class upbringing have helped him stay grounded. "Whatever amount I got was okay. The main thing for me was that I wanted to play. I got a good team and good team-mates. I come from a very village-type family. My friends are all from very middle-class families. No one is very rich or very poor. They are all very grounded people. I am also like that."
"I think," he adds after a pause.
Thampi is also a self-admittedly shy man. But for as long as he's on the field and has a ball in his hand, he certainly won't be shying away from dishing out those toe-crushers.