Sandeep Warrier is the highest wicket-taker for Kerala with 39 scalps this season (PTI Photo)
Sandeep Warrier is the highest wicket-taker for Kerala with 39 scalps this season (PTI Photo)

Heading into the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season, Kerala pace bowler Sandeep Warrier had not set any expectations for himself.

If he got one or two games, he would have been happy. This, despite being, at 27, the most experienced pacer in the Kerala squad.

In Warrier’s estimation, he genuinely was behind the likes of Basil Thampi, MD Nidheesh and KM Asif because of their IPL experience. But two months later, Warrier leads Kerala’s bowling chart with 39 wickets at 18.33 to help them reach the Ranji Trophy semi-finals for the first time ever.

And yes, he has played every single match this season.

“For somebody who thought of playing just one or two games, to go on to play the whole season and take this many wickets, what more can I ask for? It happened, and I am thankful for the almighty for this,” he tells CricketCountry after Kerala beat Gujarat by 113 runs in Wayanad last week. “At the start of the season, I had no clue how many matches will I play. We have three bowlers in this team who were part of the IPL last year – Basil, Asif and Nidheesh – so I had no expectations. I thought that if these IPL quality bowlers don’t perform, then I may get a look in.”

However, Kerala skipper Sachin Baby – Warrier’s captain from the Under-25 days – and coach Dav Whatmore showed faith in the Thrissur-born pacer even after he managed three wickets in the first two matches played on a spin-friendly track at Thumba. And when Bengal rolled out a green track at Eden Gardens to give their fiery pace attack of Mohammed Shami, Ashok Dinda and Ishan Porel something to bowl at, little did Manoj Tiwary imagine that the move would backfire.

Warrier claimed 2/42 and 5/33 while Thampi added 4/57 and 3/59 as Bengal were bowled out for 147 and 184. Kerala won handsomely by nine wickets. That match not only helped Kerala set up their record-setting season, it sent Warrier’s confidence sky high.

“That five-wicket haul set up my season,” he recalls. “It gave me immense confidence and that in a way hinted that the team will stick to this pace trio for the season … and that was huge for me.”

After the match, Whatmore described Warrier’s bowling spell as one of the best he has seen, even comparing it to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel’s efforts against Pakistan in a Test match.

Warrier has been well supported by Thampi, who has 33 wickets at 22.42, and he credits the bond developed between the two for his success this year.

 

Sandeep Warrier and Basil Thampi had combined to take 72 wickets this season for Kerala
Sandeep Warrier and Basil Thampi had combined to take 72 wickets this season for Kerala

 

“We have been together for over four years now. Not just the Kerala team, but at the MRF Pace Academy as well during the off season. We stay together and talk about cricket and our chemistry is built by helping out each other off the field,” Warrier says of Thampi.

“Our bond is such that we know what our roles are in the field. When I bowl, Basil knows what my planning is and vice-versa. And it is not just the two of us, it is the same with Nidheesh as well. If I am bowling an attacking line, Basil will be looking to contain, and if he is in rhythm and getting wickets, I will look to contain. It depends on which end we get to bowl from and accordingly we make plans, but we don’t necessarily communicate that. We know each other so well that we know what to do without discussing and honestly, this season we have clicked really well, including Nidheesh,”

Despite apprehensions ahead of the season, Warrier left no stones unturned in his preparations. Critically, he developed the in-swinger and that, he feels, was a big plus this season.   

“Until last season I was primarily an out-swing bowler, but this year my in-swingers have worked,” explains Warrier. “In fact, I was trying to get the ball in for nearly three years but did not have the confidence to try it out in the match before this season. Ahead of this season, I worked extra hard for this. After the KCA tournament, I was in Chennai for a month and practiced that skill for three-four hours daily. I knew I would have to develop the in-swinger as we would be playing on flats tracks – so that was my primary focus.”

 

 

It was Kerala’s talisman Jalaj Saxena who first mooted the idea of trying in-swingers to Warrier. “Jalaj bhai was the first guy to tell me to try the in-swinger. It was his idea that I try that and at the academy I practiced and sharpened my skills,” he reveals.

More than the happiness of registering his best-ever season, Warrier is chuffed with the fact that it has has contributed to Kerala’s historic run to the final four.

“Undoubtedly this is the best season for me – the stats show that, but for me the reason for that is the team also won matches and have reached the semi-finals as well, and that is bigger,” he says.

In 2012-13, Warrier was part of the U-23 squad for the ACC tournament in Singapore, where his 3/42 against Pakistan earned him the Man-of-the-Match award. He was picked up by the IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore that year, but went without a game for the next two years. At the IPL 2019 auctions held in December he went unsold despite having a base price of INR 20 Lakhs.

Now, after a windfall Ranji Trophy season, Warrier has managed to come out of the shadows of his IPL team-mates and an IPL contract may not be far behind. But before that, there is a massive Ranji semi-final against defending champions Vidarbha to be scaled.