Basil Thampi is part of the three-pronged fast-bowling attack which has been instrumental in Kerala making it to their first-ever Ranji Trophy semifinal, with a win over Gujarat last week. In a chat with The Indian Express ahead of the semifinal against defending champions Vidarbha, Thampi talks about the hard yards that helped him become an all-format bowler, how the fast bowlers complement each other, and why he is disappointed that Jalaj Saxena, an outstation professional for Kerala, has not picked up Malayalam. Excerpts.
What does Kerala's maiden semifinal appearance mean to the team?
Kerala is a small state without big names, and for us to qualify for the Ranji Trophy semifinals is a big deal. This is what we had been striving to achieve over the past 62 years, and finally we have reached here. We know we are just two matches away from winning the trophy. We are confident of pulling it off.
You have been vital to the team's success. Can you talk about your own form?
I have been enjoying my bowling, to be honest. Personally, I'm really in a good space now because I have contributed to my team's cause. I have picked 33 wickets from nine matches, so in a way this has been a breakthrough season for me.
What have you done differently this season?
Most importantly, I have remained fit and featured in all the games this season. Full credit to our team physio Rajesh Chauhan, who helped chalk out my fitness programme.
Also, in the past, I have struggled with my line and length while bowling in the Ranji Trophy because I would either pitch it too full or bang it in short. I think this had become a pattern because I was a regular in the shorter formats, like the IPL and playing T20s for India. So, when I made the shift to four-day cricket, I would continue bowling that length with the red ball, which made me ineffective. I was aware that I needed to pitch it up further, and draw batsmen forward.
How did that transformation take place?
Things fell into place when I travelled to the National Cricket Centre, Brisbane, last year with M Senthilnathan (former first-class cricketer) as part of the MRF Pace Foundation's exchange programme. The wickets were really good and had pace, and the weather was also fantastic. The Kookaburra ball was swinging around and I managed to hit that perfect Test match length right away. The important thing was that I was doing all this without sacrificing my pace. Greg Chappell, the academy's director, and (former fast bowler) Ryan Harris were really impressed with the way I bowled. They told me to hit that length consistently without dropping my pace. This change in length did wonders for me. Suddenly, I was drawing the batsmen forward, and getting more edges.
Can you talk about how the pacers work as a team?
We (Sandeep Warrier, MD Nidheesh and me) have bagged close to 100 wickets this season. Our success has been due to the synergy. We constantly have discussions about what lines and lengths to bowl against a particular batsman. For instance, if I spot something in Sandeep's bowling, I make it a point to tell him, and similarly if Nidheesh spots something, he will not hesitate to tell me. Such a level of understanding has helped the team. As bowlers, we are vastly different in our styles and approaches. For instance, both Sandeep and Nidheesh are proficient at moving the ball both ways, while I prefer to mix it up and bowl in shorter bursts.
Your thoughts on Kerala coach Dave Whatmore?
He has played a huge part in building this team. However, when he was appointed coach last season, I was apprehensive. You know, being such a big name, I thought to myself: 'How will I approach him, and talk to him?' But I found him to be really humble and approachable. He has a great sense of humour and is fun to talk to. He gives you full freedom to express yourself, and is not someone who will put undue pressure. He will say: 'If you want to bowl a yorker, just go ahead and bowl it.' If we lose a match, he won't sit in the dressing room and sulk.
What do the two professionals Arun Karthik and Jalaj Saxena bring to the table?
Jalaj bhai has been playing for Kerala for over three years now, but sadly he has not learnt Malayalam. He has picked up a few words like kidilan (superb), but that's about it. When I ask him to learn Malayalam, he asks me to improve my Hindi. To have a player of his stature and experience is an asset to the team. He keeps telling me to improve my batting, and sometimes even supervises when I bat at the nets. Arun bhai, on the other hand, is more of a Malayalee, because he is from Chennai. So, we don't consider him to be an outsider. Most of us have known him before he shifted base to Kerala because we played with him in the Chennai league.