Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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In November 2018, Devdutt Padikkal was an India Under-19 aspirant, knocking on the doors of the Karnataka senior team. A year on, he has not just broken the door open but has also left his imprint in a star-studded batting line-up that has KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair in their ranks.
Last week, Padikkal became the first player to complete 1000 runs across formats in 2019-20 Indian domestic season. He topped the batting charts - 609 runs in 11 innings, with two centuries and five half-centuries- in Karnataka's victorious Vijay Hazare Trophy campaign. Currently, he is leading Karnataka's charge in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and has put his side just one step away from defending their T20 title.
Like in the 50-over competition, he is perched on top of the run charts here too. He currently has 548 runs in 11 innings, with five half-centuries and a century, at an average of 68.50 and a strike rate of 178.50. At times, he has comfortably overshadowed his senior opening partner Rahul, Karnataka's next-highest run-scorer with 291 runs from seven innings.
It was the Padikkal-Rahul partnership that punctured Haryana's hopes of a maiden Mushtaq Ali final on Friday. Chasing 195, the pair put on 125 in just 9.3 overs to flatten a more-than-competitive attack comprising the legspinning duo of Amit Mishra and Yuzvendra Chahal, offspinner Jayant Yadav and seam-bowling allrounder Harshal Patel. Padikkal smashed 87 off just 42 balls, hitting 11 fours and four towering sixes, two of which sailed outside the compound wall of the Lalbhai Contractor Stadium.
Mike Hesson, the former New Zealand coach, gave Padikkal a thumbs up as he walked off, all but sealing Karnataka's win. Hesson is now Director of Cricket at Royal Challengers Bangalore, who retained the 19-year-old ahead of the upcoming IPL auction. Padikkal was part of Royal Challengers' roster in 2019 too but didn't play a single game. Yet, it was his attitude that impressed Virat Kohli, the captain, who passed on some feedback to the new support staff led by Hesson and Simon Katich.
"Feedback from last season regarding Devdutt was that he made an excellent impression with his willingness to learn from the experienced players around him," Hesson told ESPNcricinfo. "Being a local Karnataka lad, who this domestic season has shown an ability to step up quickly. To have such an excellent season when only 19 is very heartening for RCB for sure. Devdutt is focusing on the right things at the moment and if he continues to do so, he will have a very successful career ahead of him."
For Hesson, it's not his first assignment in the IPL, or for that matter in India. He was Kings XI Punjab's head coach in 2019. That aside, he has extensively worked as a cricket analyst for broadcasters Star Sports. As part of that routine, he was on duty during the Karnataka Premier League, a local T20 competition. It was there that Hesson first had a good look at Padikkal, who draws inspiration from the "character and fight" he saw in Gautam Gambhir while growing up.
So what are Padikkal's strengths as a batsman? "He batted in the middle order at the KPL, and he showed power both sides of the wicket, which was impressive for such a young player," Hesson explained. "Being a tall player, Devdutt has long reach but is also light on his feet which helps him control length, which is so important especially against spin. Devdutt's game sense and tempo have been very impressive in both 50-over and T20 cricket.
"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."
Padikkal has been impressed upon the need to see games through, not just set it up for the teams. The mantra has come from none other than Manish Pandey, the Karnataka captain, from his own experience of being part of India's limited-overs set-up. Incidentally, it was an outing against Hyderabad in the Vijay Hazare Trophy that proved to be a turning point of sorts. Having dug in to make 60 off 103 balls in a fairly low-pressure chase, he was out looking for a big hit while batting with the tail. He was the eighth batsman out, and Karnataka went on to lose by 21 runs in a chase of 199.
"When you see young guys like Devdutt getting the most runs in the tournament, it feels really awesome for me as a captain," Pandey said after Karnataka's Vijay Hazare Trophy win. "I think his mindset changed in a way after that Hyderabad game. It hurt him a lot, the way he got out, because he was the only specialist batsman remaining. If he had batted through, we would have won. It was a learning for him. Glad he overcame that and batted the way he batted in the [rest of] tournament."
With Rahul and Agarwal likely to be away on national duty at different stages of the Ranji Trophy, Padikkal will get a chance to establish himself as an opener in first-class cricket too. If he continues to churn runs as he has done so far, an India A berth during the shadow tour of New Zealand early next year cannot be out of bounds either. But before that, he has a title to win on Sunday. Meanwhile, two titles with the tag of 'highest run-getter' in both tournaments is already a bumper start to the season.