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Cricket news - Devdutt Padikkal: Born to play cricket, literally

An IPL debut for Devdutt Padikkal this year will perfectly align with his sharp rise in Indian cricket.

An IPL debut for Devdutt Padikkal this year will perfectly align with his sharp rise in Indian cricket.

No one in the Padikkal family will be overtly surprised when Devdutt debuts for Royal Challengers Bangalore, even if it comes at the expense of AB de Villiers having to don the keeper's gloves. Success in cricket was anticipated even before the idea of him was conceived.

"When we were planning for the second child, we were like if it is a boy... we'll make him a cricketer," his mother, Ambili Padikkal, says with a chuckle.

Ambili twice made the commute last year to Chinnaswamy stadium from her current residence in Bengaluru's eastern suburbs of Byappanahalli to see her son progressing on the path of a journey she had prophesied with her husband, Babunu Kunnath. IPL 2019 still came before Devdutt's head-turning exploits in the domestic circuit, but the mother relished the small joys of watching her son partaking in warm-up drills with Virat Kohli and De Villiers.

Babunu preferred to watch IPL games from the comforts of his couch, until there was a genuine possibility of his son making the final XI. That would've been now, in 2020, with even RCB's latest international star Aaron Finch, talking up the possibility of opening alongside the 20-year-old left-handed prodigy. Alas, Babunu's metro ride may have to wait for another six months at least.

"Definitely I would've gone if Devdutt was playing in Bangalore," he says. "It is going to be a great miss actually. It'll never come back right... even if next year he is playing over here, it won't be his IPL debut."

***

"Anybody who watches Dev bat, will be excited," exclaims his coach and mentor Mohammed Naseeruddin, who has seen his ward rapidly rise through different stages of age-group cricket, and now magically grow out of his cheek-pulling grasp. Even as Devdutt's parents have scrambled for trousers his size, bowlers in the domestic circuit have quickly found out his wiry 6'3" frame makes him a formidable adversary. Short balls from the quicks don't rise enough to trouble him, while his long levers and nimble feet put spin to the sword.

A naturally-attacking batsman, Devdutt showed early sparks of something special during KPL 2017 when he smashed a 53-ball 72 against Bengaluru Blasters as a 17-year-old. A sudden loss of form in U-19 cricket for Karnataka, however, threatened to derail his career from the fast lane.

"From U-14 to U-16 he never had a bad game, by god's grace," Naseeruddin remembers. "In U-19, one whole year he didn't get runs. We sat and spoke one day. I used to pull his cheek and shake him out of bad phases. After U-19, I've to climb up to pull his cheek. I told him one big score will change everything for you.

"There was an U-19 league game for the club (KIOC). That game he got a risky hundred. I think his journey started again."

Devdutt rebounded from his setback by making the India U19 squad for the tour of Sri Lanka in 2018, and subsequently lit up the Cooch Behar Trophy with 829 runs. That paved the way for a Ranji call-up to the Karnataka side - something even Babunu didn't see coming that year. A 77 on debut against Maharashtra in Mysore would validate Rahul Dravid's assessment of him having made up on any lost ground.

Padikkal is comfortable with spending timem alone, so lockdown wasn't necessarily hard on him - his mother says [Pic credits: RCB]

Having gotten a taste of cricket with the big boys, Devdutt slammed open the doors through a record-breaking 2019 that began with KPL, where he took home the Emerging Player award. Mike Hesson, then on broadcasting duty and soon to become RCB's Director of Cricket Operations, was impressed enough to retain him in the squad.

Devdutt kicked up a gear when the domestic season began, topping the runs charts in the Vijay Hazare 50-over tournament [Runs - 609, Avg - 67.66] and the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s [Runs - 580, SR - 175.75] as Karnataka completed the white-ball double. He was also the state's best batsman in their red-ball pursuits, which ended in the semifinals of the Ranji Trophy. His IPL campaign was to begin in this backdrop, until the pandemic forced the bat out of his hands.

***

Devdutt has never dealt too well with having cricket taken away from him. He was 11 when he dragged his kit bag across Dickenson road, sobbing his way to his then home in Ulsoor. His precocious talent had him fast-tracked from the U-12 to the U-14 nets at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC), but after eight days, he'd still not had the chance to put bat to ball.

"His parents were concerned. From that day, his mom and dad used to accompany him to the academy, and would even stay back and watch him play for a few days," says Naseeruddin who soon took the boy under his wing.

This was the very situation Babunu had sought to avoid when making a huge call to shift base from a cost-effective Hyderabad to a plush Central Bengaluru locality. The Paddikals from Edappal in Kerala were well settled in RK Puram in Hyderabad, where Babunu's job had him working in close synergy with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and other space centres of India. Ambili worked as an educational visa consultant with the New Zealand embassy.

It was the middle of the academic year in 2011, when the parents decided to wager on that early cricketing premonition of theirs. A 10-year-old Devdutt had trained under Ambati Rayudu's uncle until then, but Babunu saw no clear pathway for his son as 500 kids were crammed into one training session.

"It was a very tough decision to move out of Hyderabad, we had our own apartment there," he says. "The move was for Devdutt. Otherwise we could've stayed back in Hyderabad, because my company had given me the option of staying."

In fact, Devdutt, a self-confessed Manchester United fan, had passed up an opportunity as a three-year-old to earn himself a football. He reached out to the plastic bat that was also on offer with his left hand, much to the surprise of this sports-crazed family who had thought him to be right-handed. Cricket had an instant pull on the impressionable boy, and kept him on the field from 6 am to 9 pm. It was enough to convince his overjoyed father that a career could be forged out of this 'madness'.

The move to Bengaluru took Devdutt to Army Public School. But that stint didn't last long, as the coach of St. Joseph's Boys High School - the very team that Devdutt contrived to beat single-handedly in an U-14 match - convinced Naseeruddin to get his ward to switch schools.

The only thing that even threatened to impede Devdutt's progress, per Naseeruddin, was a bat handle that couldn't keep up with the boy's growth in size and reputation. Even that problem was later solved by reputed bat makers - Gray Nicolls - who signed the young star on, and customised his bats with longer handles.

***

Despite having a support system willing to cushion his every step on this nascent cricketing journey, Devdutt has remained fiercely independent. He prefers to pick out his own clothes than being taken shopping. He talks very little, so much so that Ambili has had to create social media profiles in order to get regular updates about her son's activities and achievements on tours.

"He is quite comfortable with staying alone and taking care of himself. That's perfectly okay with him," Babunu says about Devdutt's mindspace in the bio-bubble, remembering a similar predicament that cricket had forced on the boy's academics. "When he was in his 10th he got only January and February to take up his studies for the final exam. He just locked himself up in the room and studied. And he scored 96%."

The Covid-19 enforced lockdown was in some ways a throwback to those days as Devdutt studied and cleared his pending fourth semester Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) exams. The college facilitated a way for him to give his tests in isolation in a sanitised classroom.

Short bat handles were an issue for Padikkal until Gray-Nicolls came onboard

But as the lockdown extended and the possibility of IPL outside India grew, the challenge at hand was two-fold: one, to avoid the risk of catching infection and two, to straighten out his disturbed clockwork fitness and training routines. The IPL after all was responsible for one of only two moments that could get this otherwise reserved noughties kid to exult.

Ambili remembers the events of December 18, 2018 vividly when Devudtt, surprisingly at home that day, had not expected to earn suitors at the auction. However, amidst a series of seven uncapped players, like himself, that went unsold, RCB threw up the baton to rope in one of the local boys.

"He doesn't show his excitement much but that was the one time he was excited. Otherwise he's got a 'what's there in this' kind of an attitude," Ambili recalls.

"I jumped in the air. I was so happy," Babunu interjects with a chuckle. "IPL is a very big platform. At his age of 18 or 19 at that time, sitting along with the greats of the game... It was a great experience for him. Actually he picked up his game from then onward."

The IPL call-up was an important milestone for Babunu and Ambili as well. So they pulled out all stops to put their son on that flight to Dubai just as they had done to get him on that flight from Hyderabad to Bangalore. They too isolated themselves in their room when Devdutt went through his eight-day pre-departure quarantine. When they had to step out of the house to collect delivery of groceries, they did so covered in masks and gloves. The family didn't see each other except during meal times.

"We had to safely make him reach UAE, so we were locked up and suffocating ourselves," Babunu says with a smile. His wife and he finally breathed a sigh of relief on September 20 when that first photo of Devdutt emerged on Instagram with the RCB squad aboard the chartered flight. The boy's next journey had begun.

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