Sai Kishore used to be a net bowler with CSK and was part of one of their title-winning squads but didn't get a game over three seasons despite his sustained brilliance in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, India's domestic T20 competition, during that time. As for Sai Sudharsan, he was part of Junior Super Kings, the CSK youth team that is part of their grassroots programme. In this, he followed in the footsteps of his seniors in the Tamil Nadu side, Washington Sundar and M Shahrukh Khan.
In 2018, Sai Sudharsan was in the Junior Super Kings group that toured Yorkshire to face Pro Coach Yorkshire Academy, HDS Academy from Brisbane, and California Cricket Academy in 20-over and 50-over tournaments. His all-round effort in the final - a half-century followed by a double strike with his legspin - led his side to the 50-over title on that tour, and they also won the 20-over tournament.
The side's mentor on that trip was Ambati Rayudu, who, after playing a significant hand in Chennai Super Kings' IPL win in 2018 was recalled into India's squad for an ODI tour to England but then cut from the side after he failed a mandatory fitness test. The CSK management wanted to keep him engaged, which resulted in the mentor gig on the juniors' tour.
A chubby Sai Sudharsan worked with Rayudu and S Sharath, the former Tamil Nadu batter, on the tour, his first outside of India. Now 20 and much fitter, he is with Gujarat Titans in his first IPL stint. Rayudu is still in the yellow corner, featuring in his fifth IPL season for CSK. Titans have already qualified for the playoffs but they will be looking to seal their top-two spot and keep the already ousted Super Kings down.
Sai Sudharsan's mother Usha Bharadwaj, a former volleyball player for Tamil Nadu and currently a strength-and-conditioning coach, attributes his success to his improved fitness.
"Mentally, I groom him, and physically he has started training with me over the last two years and he has started to believe in my training," she says. "S&C training I take care of, his father works with him on agility training - speed, quick movement and running between the wickets. Compared to before, he now runs quicker between the wickets and it's because of his father." Sai Sudharsan's father, Bharadwaj, is also a former athlete, who represented India at the South Asian Games.
"A lot of young kids have this mindset, 'I just want to get my turn to bat,'" Usha says. "Sai was similar during his early years and then he changed himself. He watched a lot of videos of Virat Kohli. Kohli said that his fitness gives him a lot of confidence. After that, he started training seriously with me. During the pandemic, he worked hard on his fitness, and during these two years, he used to chew my ear off, asking, 'Why do we train like this? Why don't we train that way? What benefit does it bring?' He used to ask a lot of questions."
When asked about the prospect of Sai Sudharsan going up against Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, she says: "It is not a strange coincidence for us because there are so many Chennai boys spread across various IPL teams. That's how the IPL is. We're proud to see so many of his Tamil Nadu team-mates do well across teams."
With the pitches slowing down and starting to turn, it is the other Sai, Kishore, the left-arm spinner, who is more likely to find a spot in Titans' XI that will face Super Kings.
One of India's best domestic T20 fingerspinners, on his IPL debut he combined with Rashid Khan, one of the best T20 spinners in the world, taking 2 for 7 to Rashid's 4 for 24, to trample Lucknow Super Giants. That win made Titans the first franchise to make the playoffs. Sai Kishore's first wicket - Ayush Badoni stumped for 8 off 11 balls - was a testimony to his game awareness, which he says he improved during his stint with CSK.
A bit like a left-arm version of Washington, he bowls quick and into the pitch without offering width. After Deepak Hooda and Badoni got only three runs off Sai Kishore's first four balls, the bowler knew Badoni would give him the charge next ball. So he tossed it up liberally, shortened his length and found dip to create enough room between the bat and the pitch of the ball, after which the turn took it past the bat and into the gloves of Wriddhiman Saha, who did the rest.
"In the last two years my game has gone up, having been part of CSK, though I didn't get a game," Sai Kishore said during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. "I would have learned, but it would have taken more time had I not been at CSK. I'm more confident in my game and my game-reading skills have improved."
He celebrated that first IPL wicket with a cathartic roar, for he had waited long enough for the moment. His first taste of the league came through a net-bowling role at Super Kings in 2019. When MS Dhoni smashed him all over Chepauk on the third day of that camp, it was a reality check; Sai Kishore came home wondering whether he belonged at that level. He then tightened up at the camp, tempting the franchise into snapping him up for his base price of Rs 20 lakh (about US$27,400) at the 2020 auction.
Though he only warmed the bench for two seasons, he made the most of the net sessions in the UAE and India, working with Mitchell Santner and sizing himself up against Super Kings' power-hitters. "To be an international cricketer with such a record and be this humble..." Sai Kishore said of Santner. "As fingerspinners we are all on the same page - more or less. [The discussions are] about subtle aspects like the speed on the ball, angle of release, playing with the field. We discussed more about analysing and reading the game. Those chats with Mitch have been helpful to me"
Sai Kishore even used a trick from the Dhoni playbook in trapping Vivek Raj in the TNPL 2021 qualifier upon returning from a stint as a reserve bowler for India in Sri Lanka. He stationed a straight long-on for the big-hitting Vivek at Chepauk and had him caught there after floating one up.
He also upgraded his batting, often fronting up as Tamil Nadu's pinch-anchor in white-ball cricket, akin to R Ashwin's current role at Rajasthan Royals, to go with his spin. He became such an attractive T20 package that as many as six franchises bid for him at the auction earlier this year, with Titans ultimately forking out Rs 3 crore ($400,000) for him. However, with the tracks in both Mumbai and Pune offering some juice for the seamers in the early exchanges and mid-season, Titans couldn't quite fit Sai Kishore into their XI.
Speaking to Star Sports, the host broadcaster, after his IPL debut, Sai Kishore said he had been working harder on his fielding during his time on the Titans bench to make sure he was ready when he got the chance as a substitute. Now, no longer a substitute or reserve bowler, he is ready for the CSK challenge.