Like most fast bowlers around the world, Tinu Yohannan’s top concern now is on how cricket will change after the Covid-19 pandemic because of the ban on using saliva to shine balls. But Yohannan’s concerns are not simply speculative. In the upcoming domestic season, the ‘local boy’ will play bowling coach to the Kerala State Cricket team.
It is a unique challenge and one the 41-year-old is keen to not risk downplaying.
In a candid chat with indianexpress.com, the man with one of the most celebrated debuts in Indian cricket talked about guiding the Kerala fast bowling quartet through demanding rules, his ouster from the Indian squad and the strange twist of fortune that led to his stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore getting cut short due to lack of security for IPL matches due to Lok Sabha elections.
The saliva ban, of course, is a nagging worry. Yohannan feels it is the Test format that will take the worst hit for this and advocates the use of a substance that will help bowlers shine the ball.
“It’s an interesting thing (the ban)…a one-of-a-kind situation as no one has experienced this. Shining the ball is a very important factor when it comes to bowling, be it a spin bowler or a fast bowler, the shine is vital. They are speaking about saliva but sweat won’t be allowed as well. In limited overs, it doesn’t matter much compared to Test cricket. With the white ball even without shine, it won’t make a big difference. But with the red ball without the shine, it’s going to be difficult. One thing that organisers can do is to allow usage of some permitted substance to maintain the shine like vaseline or anything else.”
The Kollam-born cricketer also had an interesting insight when it came to bowler’s routine and how it will be hard for them to avoid using saliva or sweat.
“For a bowler who has been conditioned over the years to use saliva or sweat, it’s difficult to change that habit. To most of the bowlers, it comes subconsciously. It’s a part of a routine. If a bowler does that, it should not be considered a very serious offence. The habit will only slowly go away. Getting it back will also be a process (after Covid-19).”
Spin legend Anil Kumble’s recent advice on making pitches spinner-friendly not just in the sub-continent but overseas too, to get spinners back in the game and even out the contest between bat and ball, has made an impression on Yohannan. However, he adds that conditions should be favourable to everyone.
“When a person like Anil Kumble says this then it has to have some substance. At some point in a Test match, maybe after the third day, the spinners should come into play. Today, the scenario is such that we don’t see much wear and tear in the wicket. Either it becomes flat or there will be more assistance for fast bowlers if it’s overseas,” he says.
“Spinners have the duty to contain the innings, bowl maiden overs and keep bowling in one spot from the other end. I think what he is saying is to get spinners into play after the third day. Light spin on offer on Day 3, Day 4 followed by a major role on the last day for the spinners. That should be the norm in all Test matches. Everyone should have an equal chance to perform in a Test match. It should not be in favour of either batsman, fast bowlers or spinners,” he adds.
A career cut short
Yohannan himself has been no stranger to learning to live anew with tough truths. As a debutant he had caught eyes. He was tall, athletic, 22 years old and the son of Indian long jumper, Olympian, and national record holder for 30 years, T.C Yohannan.
When he made his international debut after playing a handful of First-Class matches, his easy action and ability to hit the deck hard had made him the ‘next big thing.’
He made his Test debut against England in Mohali and, incredibly, took the wickets of openers Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick in both innings. He remained wicketless in the next match, only to return after one year against New Zealand in Hamilton. But there too he failed to make a mark. He did not get another chance in the Test format after that.
Yet on his ODI debut, Yohannan took three wickets against West Indies at Bridgetown including those of openers Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds and wicketkeeper-batsman Ridley Jacobs. In the next match, he did get two wickets but also went for 10 runs per over.
“One thing that helped me was that I was raw then. I didn’t think too much. All I knew was I have to run in and bowl in good areas. It was as simple as that. The first match, all I remember is running in well, running in hard, hitting the ball in good areas. My strength had always been bowling against the left-handers,” he says.
Yohannan stuck with the squad and got another chance against Sri Lanka but was unable to outsmart the batsmen. The time was ripe for more chances but the Sourav Ganguly-led Team India were then banking heavily on experience in the pace attack ahead of the 2003 World Cup.
“…They were looking for a unit for the upcoming World Cup (2003). They were building on experience to go into the tournament. Zaheer was there, Ashish was there and Ajit. They wanted one more guy to fill the place. That’s when Javagal Srinath made a comeback. They were giving more chances to them while I was there in the squad. I got injured after that and could not continue the same form,” he says matter-of-factly.
The impact of Lok Sabha elections on IPL debut
Yohannan was back in the limelight once again when he was picked by RCB for the second season of the cash-rich IPL. However, the attack on the Sri Lankan team on March 24, 2009, followed by the unavailability of security personnel due to the Lok Sabha elections forced the IPL out of India. While South African pitches would have suited his style of bowling, things didn’t go his way. Yohannan has no regrets.
“I couldn’t travel because of the travelling restrictions when IPL was shifted to South Africa suddenly. They could only carry a certain number of players. They already had their bowling lineup set with Dale Steyn, Parveen Kumar, Jacques Kallis, Vinay Kumar and few other Indian bowlers. They could not afford to carry another Indian guy. I was unfortunately dropped out and that was okay. I learned a lot from my brief stint in IPL.”
Before the team travelled for the South Africa leg, the fast bowler brushed shoulders with a young Virat Kohli. Yohannan instantly knew there was something different about the youngster. His approach to batting, for instance.
“I really enjoyed bowling to him and he looked different straightaway. The time that he had to play bowlers and also his mental approach towards the game. He had a ‘never say die’ attitude…that natural aggression which he still shows in the field. That was his strength and it was very evident right then when I was fortunate enough to bowl to him in the nets. Hats off to him that he transformed himself so well. That time he was a chubby and full of energy, a young teenager. He understood himself so well, what he is and how much commitment is needed to get the best out of him,” he said.
Handling the setbacks
So how does a youngster raring to go deal with setbacks like Yohannan’s? Current players, Yohannan feels, are mentally stronger because of their exposure to high-pressure games like the IPL and India A tours. He is in awe of swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar for establishing himself as a mainstay in Indian bowling attack over the years.
“…how he came into the scene as a rookie bowler who could swing the ball really well both ways but with not much pace. How at one point of time he became a mainstay in the Indian team who had decent pace. There was a time when he was constantly clocking 135-140 kmph. He became a main weapon for the Indian team,” he says.
For now, Yohannan is keen to focus on his task at hand.
As bowling coach, Yohannan already has his Kerala boys hard at work. He has spoken to a few and advised them to work on their skills and assess their bowling action. Most, he says, are already working on their fitness. Mental control is key to not losing the rhythm during the lockdown.
Yohannan is already enthused about his pace quartet. Their uniqueness and ability to hunt in the back and contribute to the team even though the four of them don’t get to play together in every game has impressed him..
“Asif KM is the quickest among the lot. He has the potential to clock 145 (kmph) consistently. He is more of a short spell kind of a bowler. You give him short spells, he can give his all in those 3-4 overs (spell). He is explosive and you can’t expect long spells from him. He has good variations and suited for the limited-overs game.
That’s why he was selected by Chennai Super Kings and they also retained him. His focus is more on white-ball format.”
Thampi, feels Yohannan, has greater potential and variety. “He has got a good yorker, can bowl a good outswing and a slower ball. He is a bowler we use in both formats equally. He needs to condition the mental aspect and believe in himself so that he can be more consistent on a higher level. He is one of a kind potential who is not just a great bowler but a very good athlete. He has a very natural run-up and can bowl at good speeds.”
Sandeep Warrier has proved himself in the last two seasons. “He has gone through setbacks, injuries and come back very strongly and has got the rewards. He is the pick of the lot amongst the bowlers in Kerala team, a leader of the pack without any doubt. He is matured enough and has the ability to bowl long spells. If the captain wants, he can continue on a longer spell. Also, he can be quick at times. He is the most complete bowler of the attack in both formats equally and knows what he is doing.”
Nidheesh MD was the highest wicket-taker last year. “He is in the shadows of these guys. He has been the dark horse and the workhorse for the team. He bowls the maximum number of overs and keeps one end tight. He builds the pressure from one end. He maintains a good line and length with good speeds (135 kmph above) too. He is also a part of the Mumbai Indians team and is a good prospect for us right now.”
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