A few days after he enrolled at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC), Devdutt Padikkal went home weeping. The worried parents, who had just moved to Bangalore so that their son would get better exposure to the game, asked him why. He told them he was not getting a chance to bat. His mother rang up one of the coaches at the institute. Turned out that they mistook him for a bowler because of his height.
He was around 11-years-old then, but was taller than most kids his age. He was not 6 feet 3 as he is now, but still, he stood out in the crowd, says Mohammed Naseeruddin, one of his childhood coaches at KIOC. If indeed some coaches mused on making him a bowler wowed by his height, Padikkal himself gave them little chance to fiddle with the idea. A couple of net sessions was all it took for Naseeruddin and KIOC’s Irfan Sait to be convinced that they were watching a special talent unfold.
On Thursday night Padikkal’s unbeaten 101 off 52 balls at a strike rate of nearly 200 against Rajasthan Royals was an innings that showcased his potential once again. As much as the strokeplay, it was the calm and collected manner he went about his innings which stood out.
He was a gorgeous driver of the cricket ball, his coaches say. But it was his driven persona that impressed them. “He was very serious about the game, no-nonsense even at that young age. It was this trait that convinced us that he is a serious talent, that we have a gifted player at the academy. He had no other distractions,” says Sait.
It was as if cricket was the only thing that mattered to him. Football and PS4 are but a fleeting timepass. His sister Chandini shed light on her brother’s cricket fixation in the popular show Chat with Reena DSouza. “There was a cricket theme in everything that he did. Even the cake he cut for his birthday was either the shape of a bat, a ball or a cricket ground. His room was full of bats of different shapes and sizes,” she says.
Mild-mannered, almost introverted to quote his sister, Padikkal would take cricketing advice seriously.
For instance, in his early days, he was mostly a front-foot player, who liked to drive. He still cuts a pretty sight when driving, especially through the extra cover region. Unlike a lot of tall players, he doesn’t look to reach out to the pitch of the ball with his long levers alone. Really tall players sometimes make the folly of playing from the crease, relying too much on their reach, thereby ending up lunging at the ball. But he ensures that his front-foot strides and reaches up to the pitch of the ball. Some tall players are reluctant to use their feet, especially against the spinners. But Padikkal glides out like a Rolls Royce. Like he did against Rahul Tewatia in Thursday’s game.
The coaches, though, realised that he needed to improve his back-foot game to prosper at a higher level. “His back-foot was not getting fully back. He was kind of playing from the crease. At the school level, it did not matter, but in more competitive cricket it did. We identified the problem and started working on it. He was so motivated that he seemed to have no peace until he resolved the issue. He would easily stay back after the regular hours to hone his back-foot game,” says Sait.
These days, he shifts seamlessly on either foot, pirouetting like a ballet dancer. His penchant for the cut and pull is all too evident. En route to his unbeaten hundred against Rajasthan he unfurled a splendorous pull off fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman. The left-arm from Bangladesh doesn’t bowl at a frightening pace, so Padikkal had more time to judge the ball and decide on the stroke.
But some fundamentals stood out, like his gentle swivel, the twitch of the wrists to thread through the perfect gap and the back-foot that had gone deep into the crease. He had too much time to play that shot —a stamp of all good batsmen. That stroke embodied his game too —he welds flamboyance with finesse. He is seldom worried, or hurried. He barely plays a silly stroke, or one out of over-keenness. So many gifted youngsters fall into the pitfall of showing the world all their vaunted skills at the same time, and in the pursuit, self-destroy. He has neither the flippancy of youth or the restrain that accumulates with experience.
His cut stands out for its sheer majesty. It’s almost Caribbean in its nonchalance, in the insouciance with which the tall left-hander picks the ball, gets on top of the bounce and dismisses it in front of the point with a blend of velvet and power.
It’s his temperament as much as his strokes that has swelled his horde of admirers. India coach Ravi Shastri wrote on Twitter he made “batting looks so easy”. Kumar Sangakkara was blown away by his “maturity to bat through the innings.” Brian Lara reckons him as a “great talent.”
His all-round stroke-play excited Kohli no less. “The bowlers can’t pitch it short. He can clip balls for six. He can pull it for six. Great talent. Great one to watch out for in the future and tonight I had the best seat in the house and thoroughly enjoyed his innings.”
Beneath the quiet exterior shines a fierce determination to succeed. He loathes failures, though he rises quickly from setbacks. Losing successive finals in the Cottonian Shield, the most prestigious inter-school tournament in Bangalore, devastated him. “I cried a lot, I took the blame on myself. It was my folly I knew. But in the end, I realised that failures are part of your career and you have to come back stronger,” he said in the Reena DSouza show.
Later, in just his second outing in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he scored 60 but his exit precipitated a collapse and Karnataka lost the match.
“It hurt me, and I realised the importance of batting long and completing the job. When I feel I am drifting away, I am looking to concentrate more and get back to the game,” he recollected during a press conference later on, after hitting back-to-back hundreds in the same series.
The drive to bat deep was evident in his most recent Vijay Hazare campaign, when he stroked 737 runs in seven innings, including four hundreds at a strike rate of 147. 40. It seems he has carried the habit into the IPL, where his hundred against Rajasthan could be the start of a memorable journey. It’s time he stands out not just for his height, but his deeds. From being mistaken for a bowler, he is leaving an unmistakable mark on the bowlers he’s facing. The mark of a genius.
Padikkal’s strokes of genius
Cover drive: He glides into his drives, gets right upto the pitch of the ball and then with his wrists guides the ball through gaps with a flourish — often through the covers, and at times through extra cover. He barely over hits the ball, doesn’t reach out but waits for it to drop near him.
Pull: Anything slightly short into his body or just outside the off-stump, he is quick onto the back-foot, fluidly transferring his weight. His height, often, allows him to get on top of the ball and play it along the ground, though in shorter formats he’s inclined to take the aerial route too, wherein he consciously gets under the ball and opens his stance up a bit so that he gets the requisite elevation.
Flick: There’s an easy nonchalance about his flicks, especially when he goes aerial. It’s nothing more than a last-minute twirl of the wrists. The key again is his balance, which ensures that his head remains still when he plays the shot.
Slog sweep: Probably the most powerful shot in his repertoire. For a tall man, he hunkers down quite smoothly and once he does, a large vista opens up for him, thanks to his long reach. At times, when executing that shot, he looks like Matthew Hayden without those gargantuan forearms.