We all want Sreesanth to make a comeback: Kerala coach Tinu Yohannan
Kerala has produced three international cricketers, starting from Tinu Yohannan, who made his India debut in 2001 in the Mohali Test against England. Four years later, Sreesanth broke into the national One-Day International (ODI) side in the home series against Sri Lanka. It took the state ten long years to finally produce their third international cricketer – Sanju Samson, who made his Twenty20 International (T20I) debut in Zimbabwe.
Ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, Kerala have named Yohannan as their new head coach. The former India pacer was in charge of his state team earlier but was given only a four-month interim role before Dav Whatmore took over. Under the Australian’s management, Kerala cricket took a great turn. They reached the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy for the first time during the 2017-18 season before bettering that with a semi-final finish in 2018-19. However, the recently ended 2019-20 campaign was a disastrous one for Kerala, especially in the First-Class format as they got relegated to Group C in the Ranji Trophy.
With the lockdown restrictions getting eased, players have begun to train, and there is one man in Kerala who cannot wait to make a comeback – Sreesanth, whose ban is due to end this year. Yohannan says the team will welcome him the controversial pacer with open arms.
It will take time for Yohannan to revive this talented Kerala side, but the 41-year-old is confident he can turn things around in the next few months. He has spent a lot of time with the team in the past as their bowling coach. Kerala have developed one of the strongest pace attacks in recent years. Having worked with head coaches such as Chandrakant Pandit and Whatmore, Yohannan has rich experience on his CV about handling a team.
In a conversation with Sakal Times, Yohannan has spoken about Sreesanth, Kerala’s plans and preparations for the upcoming season, Sanju Samson’s role, Robbin Uthappa’s experience, and more:
Have you spoken to your team yet?
A: I just started interacting with them last week. We had a session with the seniors to get feedback from them. They are the best people to explain which areas we exactly need to work and move forward. The boys want to be well prepared this time, whenever the season starts. They want to specialise in specific areas such as batting in the top-order and tail-end.
Kerala’s batting has been patchy. Do you have plans in place for it?
A: It’s all about finding the right people for their respective positions. We need to identify their roles in the team, especially batting, and give them enough opportunities to play in that role. Preparing is a key factor, along with providing the players with proper conditions like good wickets to implement their skills.
What is Kerala’s strength, according to you?
A: They are a balanced unit. Be it any department; our players try to let their game do the talking. Until this season, bowling has been our strength. We have been able to pick 20 wickets in a match on quite a few occasions as the bowlers have delivered, even if our batters have struggled. But I have never considered batting as our weakness. We do have batsmen who have the potential to score big runs. They just need to get enough opportunities; we must have faith in them, and provide the right conditions to perform.
After quarters and semi finishes in two seasons, what do you think went wrong that Kerala got relegated to Group C in the Ranji trophy in 2019-20? How do you intend to rectify that?
A: I was not a part of the team for the majority of last season, so I cannot talk about details. But you know, I think these things happen in a team. It is usually the result of having a lack of clarity in mind in how to go about things and less preparation. Also, we did not have our key players like Sanju and Sandeep [Warrier] in many games. That’s how we missed out on, I guess.
Samson received a few chances in New Zealand due to Rohit Sharma’s injury earlier this year. Do you think he should be given more opportunities considering his skill-set?
A: He [Samson] will surely get more chances, you know. He just has to keep performing, that’s the key. When he gets the chances, it’s important to grab it. With his talent and potential, he surely has more opportunities coming his way. I’m sure, this season, he’ll make an impact.
Tell us what value does Robin Uthappa brings in the side?
A: Without any doubt, his experience is precious for us. The way he can contribute to the team, with the bat and by helping the youngsters can really make a difference in the team. Last season, he was returning from an illness, so he was not at his best. I think this season is going to be different. He will also have a role in grooming the junior players with his knowledge and also help them understand certain situations. He and Jalaj [Saxena] can really groom the young boys, and that’s what is vital for us this season.
Last season, after Kerala axed Sachin Baby as the team’s captain, they had separate skippers for Ranji Trophy and limited-overs. Will you continue that this season?
A: We have not thought it through yet. The selectors have to make a decision. So, let’s see how it goes. Once we come up with the probable and the team, then the captaincy and other stuff will be taken care of. A lot of experienced candidates are there in the team. He [Baby] did well as a captain as he took the team to two knockout stages in the Ranji Trophy. While Sachin is a good captain, Sanju is also there with experience and the respect he gains from the players.
Sandeep Warrier has switched to Tamil Nadu this season. What kind of void has he left in the team?
A: He certainly has left in a gap in the team, a spot he had so faithfully taken care of all these years. He worked hard and was committed. However, this is also an opportunity for anyone who is willing to fill that space that comes with a lot of responsibility. Youngsters like Basil Thampi, KM Asif, and MD Niddhesh can step into the shoes of the senior bowler, who leads the pack. In a few months, I guess, we’ll come to know who the person is. There’s always a chance for others, and that’s how we look into it.
Thampi was close to making his India debut recently, do you think he is someone with a bright prospect and that he will go on to play at the highest level?
A: He has the talent, and now, it’s up to him to work hard and make the best out of it. He has everything on his plate; he just needs to go out and perform. He needs to have that hunger to push his limits. He also has the IPL contract, and if he can improve and prove his skill level to what the team needs some times, he can never fail. He will wear the Indian jersey someday. One good season will change things for him.
Apart from Thampi, Kerala have several other fast bowlers who have drawn interest from IPL franchises like KM Asif, Niddhesh. Do you think Kerala has the potential to become India’s fast bowling hub?
A: I think it has been always. It’s just that apart from Sreesanth, no one has stayed there for a long time and really proven their potential. We have always had talented fast bowlers in the state. Only the last one or two years have not produced good pacers in our Under-16 and Under-19 teams. I’m not sure what the reason is. But whoever is there right now, they are all potential to play at the highest level, just that they have to dream bigger, aim higher and they can surely reach there and play for the country someday.
Sreesanth’s ban is set to end this year. Do you think he’ll make his Kerala comeback?
A: Definitely, he is in consideration all the time. He does not need to prove his ability as he has always been a player to see. He’ll get ready only by September. So, after that, we’ll see how he’s doing, and then we’ll make a decision. We have not talked about it, but we all want him to make his comeback. I’m very much in touch with him. He is working hard and getting ready and is keen on returning to the field. He always believes in things that we cannot think about: he still has hopes to represent India again.
Since your debut, only two more cricketers from Kerala have gone on to play for India – Samson, and Sreesanth and out of which, only the latter has played Test cricket. Why do you think there is a lack of international representation from the state?
A: I believe it’s because of the lack of intent and belief from our players to play for India and staying for a long time. They all have potential, but somehow, they get satisfied with where they are or what they have achieved: maybe playing for Kerala for a few years or even an IPL cap, they aim lesser. If they aim higher, they can reach greater heights. They have talent and potential. Only their thought process and mindset has to change.
You picked your maiden Test wicket on the fourth ball of your very first over in Test career. You eventually played only ten games for India (5 ODIs and 5 Tests). Were you disappointed that you could not play more matches?
A: Yes, the disappointment was surely there during the latter parts of my career where I realised I had the potential to play for longer but did not do so. There were regrets as well but, thankfully I came out of it and did not sulk. I realised that my failure could be a blessing for someone else. Now, as a coach, there are many bowlers whom I can guide with things that I could have done better. So that way I learnt a lot from my career.
Being a fast bowler, what do you think of ICC’s new saliva rule? Giving the circumstances, do you think it is the right move or do you suggest something better?
A: We don’t have a lot of options right now; the board has to make a decision. For me, it’s going to be difficult, and it’s a hard call. At some point in time, bowlers may forget it and use it (saliva), so my only concern is that they should not get banned for it. For any bowler who has played for so long, it is not intended but habitual. Hopefully, the players can remind themselves not to do it. It’s kind of routine many bowlers have, and that helps them get into the rhythm. Also, they have to find another way to maintain the shine of the ball. If there will be no shine, then it’ll be like the pacers would lose their main weapon: like fighting with a gun but without bullets. So, we definitely need some other alternative for it.
Pick a promising player from Kerala’s team who is not in the limelight, but you think he has a great career ahead of him?
A: I would go with wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammed Azharuddeen. I rate him high in terms of talent that he has. The next would be Salman Nizar, an exceptional fielder, and good batsman. These two are waiting in the wing to really blossom. I hope this year will change their image in the Indian circuit.
(Sakshi Gupta is a sports journalist and travel writer. More than a sport, it's sportspersons who have kept her engaged in work. She tweets at @sakshi2929.)