When he reached high school, Yohannan junior dabbled in cricket and became the strike bowler of his school team. A break with a popular cricket club in Kochi provided him the launch pad, which sent him all the way to the Indian team.
A decade ago, however, Yohannan’s career path to Team India was more of an exception than the norm in a state where football, athletics, swimming, waterpolo, volleyball and basketball have traditionally dominated.
Youngsters adorn their walls with posters of Diego Maradona, Carl Lewis, Steffi Graf, Cristiano Ronaldo, Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. IM Vijayan, the former India football skipper, can still draw as big a crowd as Sachin Tendulkar. The advent of Yohannan and then Shanthakumaran Sreesanth did trigger a passion for cricket among Malayalees but football or athletics still held their sway.
All that, however, could just change with Kochi bagging the franchisee rights for an Indian Premier League team.
KN Ananthapadmanabhan, the former Kerala leg-spinner, believes that the launch of a Kochi-based team will open a window of opportunity for aspiring players from the state.
“Just imagine one of the young Kerala fast bowlers dismissing Virender Sehwag or Sachin Tendulkar. What ails the Kerala cricketer is a lack of confidence because he hardly gets an opportunity to rub shoulders with the big boys. Even Sreesanth, after breaking into the national team, has played only a handful of games for Kerala. If our boys can share the dressing room with international players and play against them they will gain immensely,” Ananthpadmanabhan, also a former junior national selector, told DNA.
Incidentally, it is only in Kochi that league cricket is played over two days of 90 overs each. The other cricket played in the districts is either 50 or 30-over games.
“Quality turf wickets have been laid in new stadiums in Thalassery and Palakkad. However, most of the other turf wickets are within grounds where at times the boundary is just 30-35 yards away. Rest of the cricket is played on matting wickets. Hopefully, having a Kochi-based IPL team will improve infrastructure rapidly,” Ananthapadmanabhan said.
Sreesanth believes that the new IPL team will see more role models emerge. “When it came to fast bowling I always looked up to Tinu. Now, I am sure we will see more youngsters take up cricket as a profession over athletics and football. Sports in Kerala will get a big boost as having an IPL team will mean more investment and greater interest in cricket.” Sreesanth told this newspaper.
As for where his loyalties will lie, Sreesanth said: “I would love to be an icon player for Kochi and help them win the IPL title. That said, as of now I am enjoying playing for Kings XI Punjab.”
Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) secretary TC Mathew said: “We are establishing cricket stadiums in 14 districts and will train 300 players under the Cricket Academy and Sports Hostel (CASH) programme, an international-standard cricket stadium with a seating capacity of 50,000 will come up in Edakochi,” Mathew said.
This season Kerala’s only success in Ranji Trophy was a walkover, courtesy Services. However, Ananthapadmanabhan believes results don’t reflect the calibre of the side. “We are a much better team.”