If American author Daniel Handler plans to pen a sequel to his best-selling novel ‘The Series of Unfortunate Events’, he need not look beyond the life and times of Ponnam Rahul, Kerala’s stodgy young opener, for inspiration. Since 2015, he has been on the selectors’ radar, and every time he looked like making his first-class debut, circumstances would contrive to put him out of reckoning.
Three seasons ago, it was a hamstring niggle that dashed his hopes. Back in 2017, he narrowly survived a motorcycle crash, before an arduous rehabilitation programme brought him back on his feet.
When it finally looked like things had fallen in place for the 26-year-old, there were more problems in store.
First up, that all-too-familiar hamstring injury would flare up, which punctured his hopes of playing in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Barely had he regained fitness when three weeks later, a glass pane from a bathroom door came crashing onto his face and pop a vein. “My face had become disfigured after the glass pierced my face and popped a vein,” Rahul narrates in a matter-of-fact manner. Another surgery was followed by another rehab. The freakish accident looked like it would end his cricketing dreams for good. However, he would recover just in time for the ongoing first-class season.
Looking back, Rahul is not overwhelmed with negativity by these setbacks. If anything, it instilled more clarity in him about what he wanted to achieve as a cricketer. “These injuries and accidents are part and parcel of life. There’s no point feeling negative about it. It was tough, but during those low phases, I found immense strength from my family and friends. Even back then, I only had the dream of playing Ranji Trophy for Kerala,” the Alappuzha lad says, recalling the series of unfortunate episodes.
Rahul began his first full-fledged season on an inauspicious note, watching his team perform from the sidelines. “I was not picked for the first four games, and watched my seniors Jalaj Saxena and Arun Karthik open the innings,” he says. Instead of whiling time away, he quietly observed the experienced players in action and picked their brains. So much so, that when he was finally handed the opportunity, he accepted it without an element of hesitation or fuss. After notching up half-centuries against Tamil Nadu and Delhi, he rose to the occasion during the must-win game against Himachal Pradesh, scoring his maiden century.
He has not looked back since, quietly cementing his place as Kerala’s opener. It’s these timely contributions which have been instrumental in his team’s historic march to the Ranji Trophy semifinals. Tinu Yohannan, a former Kerala coach, says it’s Rahul’s never-say-die spirit that has got him this far. “He is a very spirited lad. Anyone else in his place, after what he has undergone, would have given up the idea of playing cricket. But it’s the tenacity that helped him overcome these adversities.”
Like Rahul, Vinoop Manoharan, too is blessed with oodles of tenacity and fortitude. It’s Manoharan’s unflinching drive to represent Kerala in the Ranji Trophy that has put the spotlight back on him after spending four seasons in the wilderness. Yohannan puts it rather bluntly, when he says: “After making his Ranji Trophy debut five seasons ago, he lost his rhythm and form. He was dropped after his first season, and it looked like he would slip into oblivion.”
During his time away, the Kerala dressing room would witness a lot of churn. Coaches would come and go, but this period also saw the emergence of Jalaj Saxena as the team’s No.1 all-rounder. But Manoharan kept plugging away, and would get noticed by the selectors after a mountain of runs and bagful of wickets for State Bank of India, his club team. Like Rahul, he too would wait on the fringes before finally making it back to the playing XI for Kerala’s game against Delhi. However, like Rahul, it would only be in the final league game against Himachal that Manoharan came into his own. After the third day, Himachal had garnered close to a 290-run lead. In pursuit of quick runs, coach Dav Whatmore decided to promote Manoharan as an opener, along with Rahul.
Prior to that, Manoharan had been batting lower down the order.
Such a move in a tense chase could have proved counter-productive. But Whatmore’s move smacked of pragmatism. “We needed to score at 4.5 runs per over to win the game, and Manoharan was batting beautifully against our pacers in the nets. So I decided to promote him as an opener,” the coach said. Whatmore’s gamble paid off and Manoharan’s timely 96 helped Kerala chase down 298 to qualify for the knock-outs. “I was batting really well against the quicks, and on the final day, I just backed myself and went for my shots,” Manoharan quips.
Off the field, Manoharan has bonded well with Saxena. That they are room-mates help them bounce ideas about the game. Saxena has also taught him certain visualisation techniques, which have helped him regain his focus.
“I have managed to share a very good rapport with Jalaj bhai. He is the best all-rounder on the domestic circuit and has been my inspiration during my time away from the Kerala team. Apart from that, he has formulated certain visualisation techniques, which have helped me. It’s a simple technique wherein you just close your eyes and recall all that you did before a successful spell or a match-winning innings. This is something that I have been practising, and it’s been really beneficial,” Manoharan explains.
In Rahul and Manoharan, Kerala have two accidental openers in their line-up who, by strange quirks of fates, have not only realised their potential, but have also enhanced their reputation. More than their fancied three-pronged pace attack, and the outstation professional players, it’s these stirring comeback tales of relatively unknown players that makes Kerala’s run in the Ranji Trophy so special.