Before Sreesanth, there was Tinu Yohannan from Kerala

Before Sreesanth, there was Tinu Yohannan from Kerala
© Provided by The Indian Express

On December 3, 2001, Tinu Yohannan made history as he became the first player from Kerala to play for the Indian cricket team. On a hazy morning at the PCA Stadium in Mohali, he took the new ball against England in the first Test of the series and bagged his first wicket in only his fourth ball; Mark Butcher caught at slip. It was a dream start.

“Is it 20 years already?” asks Yohannan when called him up.

“It doesn’t feel so. Maybe it’s because I have always been involved with the game with coaching and all even after I retired from first-class cricket,” says Yohannan, who is currently the coach of the Kerala senior men’s cricket team.

While S Sreesanth may have since gone on to become more famous, Yohannan remains the trailblazer for Kerala, largely a cricketing backwater, especially back then. Son of legendary Olympian TC Yohannan, who held the national record in long jump for nearly three decades, Tinu Yohannan believes it was a blessing that he had become the chosen one from his state.

“A lot of players before me had hoped to become the first player from Kerala to play for India. Some really deserving men (like KN Ananthapadmanabhan) had missed out. You can call it fate, destiny or whatever, but I had the privilege, finally, to play for India. I have always been truly grateful to God for that,” says the man who represented India in three Tests (5 wickets) and three ODIs (5 wickets).

“When I look back, I feel everything fell into place for me. I had quite a good run in Ranji Trophy leading into that series, with 20-25 wickets in each of the two previous seasons, and had some good outings in the Duleep Trophy and the Irani Trophy. And the selectors were looking to make changes after India had lost to South Africa in the away series,” says Tinu who was one of the three players — Iqbal Siddiqui and Sanjay Bagar being the other two — who debuted for India in that Mohali Test.

While terms like ‘Fab Four’ or ‘Fab Five’ were yet to gain coinage in 2001, walking into a dressing room comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and others might have been an intimidating prospect for youngsters.

It wasn’t to be, as Yohannan would soon realise.

“I still vividly remember the team meeting we had before the game at the hotel. John Wright (coach) introduced us to the team. Sourav (captain) and other seniors made us feel part of the team as they were very welcoming. It took just two practice sessions and I felt very comfortable and got this belief that I belong here,” he says.

India won the toss and decided to bowl, a rare call on an Indian wicket.

“It was a good cricketing wicket with live grass on it and the overcast conditions made us bowl. To be honest, I did not feel a great deal of pressure because I was in a good frame of mind. Sachin and Sourav fielding at mid-off and mid-on when you are bowling; an unbelievable experience it was. About the first wicket, I had always been a good bowler to left-handers; taking the ball away from them was my strength. I squared Butcher up with a good-length ball that just seamed away, and Laxman took the catch at second slip,” remembers Yohannan.

The pacer, crucially, took the second wicket also after Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain had put on 125 runs. Trescothick shouldered arms to a ball that jagged back and was bowled, triggering an England collapse that set India on their way to a comfortable 10-wicket win.

READ |Mumbai Test: Mayank’s ton salvages day after Ajaz gives India anxious moments

While Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were the match winners for India with eight and seven wickets respectively, Yohannan made his mark in the second innings too, by removing both the England openers again. “In the second innings, I had to bowl a bit differently. I tried the short ball and they both fell to pull shots, caught in the deep square leg region.”

Credit to MRF Pace Foundation

From joining the MRF Pace Foundation as a rookie with not even district-level experience of organised cricket behind him in 1997 to donning the India jersey in 2001, Yohannan’s rise was rapid.

“When I joined MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, I was completely raw. I could bowl fast but I was all around the place. I just went for the trials there. Dennis Lillee and TA Sekhar moulded me after they saw some spark in me and asked me to stay back. I did not go back home for six months. I joined Loyola College in Chennai and those two years were crucial in my development as a bowler,” he says.

Coming from Kerala, where junior cricket was not as prominent as it was in major cricketing hubs, was for him both a boon and bane, says Tinu.

“The cricketing basics, technical awareness, organising my action, bowling to a set pattern, I learned it all at the foundation. Whatever Lillee or Shekhar sir told me were the only things that mattered to me. Whereas, I felt others who came from places like Baroda, Mumbai, Bangalore all were already a bit more advanced in their development. They knew what they needed to do,” he says.

Falling off the radar

In India’s 2002 tour of the West Indies, Tinu Yohannan made his ODI debut in Barbados and played a key role in the win with three wickets (3/33), notably all left-handers again — Wavell Hinds, Chris Gayle and Ridley Jacobs. However, as senior bowlers like Javagal Srinath, Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar found form, Yohannan could not hold on to his place.

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A Test against New Zealand in Hamilton later that year would happen to be his last outing for India.

Does he have any regrets? “I wouldn’t call it regret. But looking back, I could have evolved into a better bowler. I was content being the same bowler I was. I could have developed an outswinger or tried to master the reverse swing,” says Yohannan who cites the example of his contemporary Zaheer Khan who underwent multiple evolutions over a successful career.

Could he have gone to play county cricket to gain more exposure? “I could have. But I chose the safer option. That, at the time, was sticking to my job (Yohannan worked with India Pistons and Chemplast in Chennai). I was not adventurous enough, maybe,” he says.

Tinu Yohannan finished with 145 wickets from 59 first-class matches and 63 wickets from 45 List-A matches. From 2014, he has been actively involved with Kerala cricket in many roles such as bowling coach, caretaker coach and now head coach of the men’s team.

Even though Kerala sees an evergrowing representation in IPL teams these days, the path broken by Yohannan has since been traversed by only three players — Sreesanth and Sanju Samson and Sandeep Warrier.

While Yohannan tries to mould the next generation, his advice for budding cricketers is clear: “Your dream might be to play for India. But remember, it does not end there. You have to stay there. Cricket is a full-time profession and you will have to sacrifice a lot and keep improving each day.”

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