Selected in the Indian team for the first Test against England at Mohali late last year, Tinu Yohannan made quite an impression on debut, removing the English openers in both innings. It appeared as if things were beginning to happen too soon in the life of this quiet Christian from Kerala. However, came the second Test in Ahmedabad and he had to face the stark realities about the game at the highest level and went wicketless. So much so, there was no place for him in the side for the third and final Test. Although he did play a few One-Day Internationals in the West Indies and England earlier this year, it was becoming increasingly clear that the selectors had lost interest in him just like they had in the others of his ilk, like Dodda Ganesh and Debashish Mohanty.
In fact, it was a bit disturbing, even shocking, that the selectors did even think of considering Yohannan for the recent seven-match ODI series against the West Indies, especially when Ajit Agarkar and Javgal Srinath were cutting a sorry figure in the absence of Zaheer Khan.
Like many young cricketers honoured with the India cap a bit too early and then deprived of it when deserved, Yohannan had no other option but to watch the selectors' dirty game with the impatience of a man in a hurry to prove himself all over again. What he needed was a good performance to remind them that the Indian pace attack is not all about Agarkar only. And it came precisely on the eve of the selection of the Indian team for the tour of New Zealand. Representing Kerala in the Ranji Trophy 'Plate' group tie, he rocked Saurashtra on a hard Rajkot wicket with a fiery spell and figures of 13.5-2-61-6 in the second innings.
Not only did it enable Kerala to win by an innings and pick all the three points from the match, but also paved the way for him to stage a comeback to the national side.
Now that he has been given another opportunity, Yohannan should grab it with both hands, cement his place and look towards becoming a kingpin in the Indian pace attack in the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. The ball, as they say, is now in his court.
In a freewheeling interview with Haresh Pandya, the tall and talented fast bowler emphasises how he was "very optimistic" of making a comeback "sooner than later". Excerpts:
I was very optimistic. I've confidence in my cricketing ability. I knew I'd get at least one more chance, sooner than later, to prove my worth. I was confident the selectors would give me a fair deal. I think I bowled reasonably well on a placid pitch at Rajkot the other week, which may have impressed the selectors. All I want now is to earn a place in the playing XI by hard work and good performance. In a way, the New Zealand tour should be a good learning experience for me.
How did you feel on being thrown into the wilderness after just two Tests and a few ODIs in which you had done pretty well?
I felt a bit disappointed, but I took it philosophically. After all, it's a part of the game. You've got to take the rough with the smooth. It was a big motivation for me to try, work harder and stage a comeback.
What went wrong in the West Indies and England?
I can't blame anybody but myself for not grabbing my chances on both those tours. I should have made the most of the good wickets and helpful conditions, but I couldn't. I thought I would get a chance in the Barbados Test, considering the fast wicket, but I missed out.
Of course, I made a fairly good impression in my very first One-Day International in the Caribbean. I bowled the first over... a maiden, and took three wickets [including Wavel Hinds for 15 and Chris Gayle for 16] for 33 runs in the West Indies total of 186.
Were you expecting to be selected for at least one of the seven ODIs against the West Indies at home, particularly when Zaheer Khan was absent and Ajit Agarkar was not doing well?
I did. I thought I might be included in the last couple of ODIs. Unfortunately, I didn't do well in the first Ranji Trophy match against Goa. Though I bowled well, I didn't pick wickets. I think the selectors were watching. The series was more or less over by the time I claimed six wickets in an innings against Saurashtra at Rajkot. But, to be fair to Ajit, I think he did well, both with the ball and bat. He came back strongly and proved his utility. He is a good player who is getting a fair deal.
Many in India were surprised when you were picked for the first Test against England at Mohali late last year. Were you, too?
Yes, to be honest, it was a bit of a surprise. But I had been expecting it, nevertheless. I think I bowled pretty well in my first Test and also took a few important wickets. It boosted my confidence.
Were you nervous like any young Test debutant?
No, there was no nervousness; only a bit of anxiety. Test cricket is a different ball game altogether. I was both anxious and thrilled to be playing with seniors like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and others. It's a dream of any young cricketer to play for his country. It's a big thing, and hence the anxiety, when you are given an opportunity to realise it. But once I bowled my first over and got a wicket, the anxiety disappeared.
What kind of welcome did you get in the Indian dressing room?
It seemed as if everyone was behind me, telling me not to be anxious or nervous. They all wished me a good luck, too. Their friendly approach and words of encouragement made me feel at home.
Which has been your best, and memorable, dismissal so far?
I think the ball with which I got Mark Butcher out in the Mohali Test was really very good.
Apart from Dennis Lillee, who has played a key role in your development as a cricketer?
T A Sekhar has helped me a lot. He has shown me the right path. He gave me some valuable tips and also set my action right. Of course, Lillee is a big motivation for all of us.
Talking about action, have you tried to model it on anyone else's?
No, no. It's a different action altogether. It's a natural action.
Like your father, T C Yohannan, who held an Asian Games long jump record for long, you too were a promising athlete at the junior level. You even won a couple of medals. Suddenly you proved yourself as a cricketer also. How did the metamorphosis come about?
I myself don't know what exactly happened. Athletics was very much in my blood. I represented Kerala and came second in the junior high jump. Although I used to play cricket in school, I never took it seriously. But after my Class XII studies I got a chance to train at the MRF Pace Foundation, Chennai, where Sekhar Sir saw me, got interested, advised me to take up cricket seriously and asked me to join the rest of boys under him.
He must have been impressed by your height and physique to begin with...
Oh yes; and my fitness as well! It is one of my plus points.
Wasn't it the glamour and the good money that attracted you towards cricket?
Yes, definitely. It was one of the big factors. There is a lot of struggle in athletics. It's not as easy as in cricket, especially in India. It calls for a lot of hard work and many other things besides. Compared to cricket, athletics demands double hard work. I think I've made the right choice.
What is your forte as a pace bowler?
I think my fitness is definitely my strong point. Modern cricket is so demanding that you have to be supremely fit, particularly if you are a fast bowler. Of course, my ability to hit the seam and move the ball is my forte. I also use my height well.
Do you call yourself a finished product as a pace bowler?
No, certainly not. I don't think anyone can be, whatever his discipline. I've still to improve my outswing; I've to learn to get the ball move out. I've been working on that. My Kerala coach, Abey Kuruvilla, has been helping me a lot in this regard. He was almost the same kind of bowler I'm today. So he understands me well.
Any special piece of advice from Lillee?
"Never give up. Whatever happens, always happens for the good," he says. Cricket is not an easy game by all means. You've to have patience, especially when you are a pace bowler. It's a tough job. He has told me to have a balanced, positive approach towards the game always.
The whole of Kerala is agog that a son of its soil is donning national colours. Of course, Kuruvilla did play for the country, but at that time he was representing Mumbai. You are the only one who is straight from Kerala. How do you feel about it?
There is definitely a lot of support for me from my entire state. People are excited that there is someone from among them who is considered good enough for national honours. It's a great feeling. Even when I was out of the team, they were all very much behind me; they convinced that I would get my due. The encouragement is simply overwhelming.
What does cricket mean to you?
It has meant a lot to me in the last five years or so. Now it's my bread and butter. It's definitely life for me.
In what other way do you follow the game?
I read considerably on cricket. I am more interested in reading biographies of cricketers. I also watch a lot of cricket and discuss it with friends.
What do you have to say about Zaheer Khan?
He is a brilliant fast bowler. He is an asset to the Indian team. He has brought many changes to the attitude to fast bowling in India. He is a gem of a person -- both as a fellow fast bowler and as a friend of mine. I've known him since my MRF Pace Foundation days. We are very good friends. I always adore his company.
Do you think Javagal Srinath did the right thing by announcing his retirement and then coming out of it?
I'm not sure. I'm afraid I'm not the right person to comment on that.
Do you feel India still needs an experienced quickie like Srinath?
Definitely. He has been of immense help to younger fast bowlers like me. He is so experienced he can share his experiences with others.
At the outset of this interview you had said that trying to make a comeback was a big motivation for you. But where does your motivation come from as a cricketer?
It comes from my father, my mother and my brother. My family is a great source of motivation for me. They encourage me so much; they support me so much. There is also a lot of encouragement from God, from the Bible, etc.
Are you religious?
Pretty much, sir. I've great faith in Jesus.
How has been your reading habit?
I'm not particularly choosy when it comes to reading. I read any good thing though I prefer religious books and cricketing biographies.
What about your education? Did you have time to pursue your studies?
I am a degree holder in B.A. with economics. I had enough time to pursue my studies. I completed my graduation before I began playing for the country.