“All teams are good and competitive on their day. It depends on conditions, mindset of the players. The back-up players are being groomed. There has to be competition for the players in the starting XI.”
Unabashed and straightforward, new Kerala head coach Tinu Yohannan has an air of confidence in his words. Unperturbed by Kerala’s demotion to the Elite C Group in the Ranji Trophy and strike bowler, Sandeep Warrier’s departure from the setup, Yohannan has a clear plan in place for the next Ranji season, a roadmap to groom talent from grassroot levels and an inside knowledge of the setup that no foreign coach can ever bring.
“That’s my advantage [knowing the Kerala Cricket Association setup and the players]. I know these players very well. I have played with few of them and some others I have helped out in the last few seasons. It’s about creating an atmosphere where they can show their skills to the fullest,” Yohannan says in an exclusive chat with Cricket News.
Kerala’s fortunes in the Ranji Trophy have swung back and forth in the last three seasons with the latest edition of the tournament revealing glaring holes in their management and team. It is possibly why they went to someone close to home when hunting for a head coach.
Yohannan has been in and around the setup for the last decade and has a long-term vision for the state’s progress. He also has a concise, well-formed idea of what went wrong for Kerala cricket last season and immediately dismisses the notion that it’s about the lack of homegrown talent.
“We were never short of talent. We finished a few camps at under-16 and under-19 level. There were almost 100 players in the scheme. After assessing their skill level, technical aspects, mental ability, tactical awareness and fitness level, it’s very promising. The talent that we have is encouraging. They just need proper guidance and facilities to practice. The high performance center [in Alappuzha] needs just some go ahead from the government and authorities. Once that’s up, we can groom this talent for age group cricket. It’s a long process, but it’s underway already. Building the bench strength or foundation for KCA will take time and effort,” Yohannan says.
He is also quick to agree that playing home games on turning tracks affected the side, although he accepts that it was a management decision. While stating that they are going for true wickets this time around, Yohannan emphasizes that he knows Kerala’s strength is their fast bowling group.
“I think we always had a very decent fast bowling attack. Now that Sandeep has left, Basil [Thampi] will have to step into his shoes and take that extra responsibility. He is ready for it – just that mentally and physically he has to prepare himself to, say bowl that extra over or bowl against the wind. We also have KM Asif who has been an integral part of the team. He should play a key part in the next season,” Yohannan states while adding that Sandeep’s departure is a chance for someone else to step into his shoes.
“Sandeep was the bowler in form, the leader of the pack. One person going is another person’s opportunity. There are others in the under-23 circuit who we have our eyes on. Whoever steps forward, we will need to back them for a period of time.”
In the mix is also one former national team player, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth. Named in the probables list for the Ranji season that could start in September, conditions permitting, Sreesanth is someone Yohannan believes can be a huge bonus for Kerala despite his seven-year long absence from competitive cricket.
“We want Sreesanth to be playing again. He has been in constant touch and has been training really hard to get match ready. His ban will lift in September when the season starts. We’ll need to assess him, but he’s definitely in the mix.”
Even as there are changes at the leadership front with Sachin Baby being replaced by Jalaj Saxena, the root cause of Kerala’s debacles last season was their dismal batting in the absence of Sanju Samson, who was with the India A team. But the head coach believes that defining clear roles for batsmen should sort out the issue.
“On paper, we have a phenomenal batting line-up. It’s just that we need to give them clarity about their job and role in the batting line-up. I think they will be in a much more comfortable space when their roles are defined. It’s not a matter of talent. That’s there in plenty. It’s about opportunities. We need to give them avenues to perform. We are looking for a good batting performance this upcoming season,” Yohannan said.
This coming from a former pace bowler speaks volumes about Yohannan’s range as a coach. Having been with Kerala cricket through their ups and downs, the former Indian pacer is accustomed to the challenges that comes with the role. Developing the talent at grassroot levels has been identified as a priority with Yohannan pioneering the ‘Catch Them Young’ program with Kerala Cricket, one that would help them go talent hunting at school-level cricket.
“Under the ‘catch them young’ program, all our coaches at district level get involved and can start working at school level and search for talent; start bringing them into the program and they come under the KCA radar immediately,” Yohannan explains.
While they can only focus on existing talent for now with COVID-19 playing spoilsport, Yohannan has worked in getting to know the mental and physical state the players are in. Unlike others, though, he sees this as valuable recuperation time for the players. With small assured steps, rather than giant risky leaps, in the right direction, Kerala Cricket could well be on the upswing sooner than they believe with a clear head like Yohannan at the helm.