Ryan Ninan is not a name that is popular in the Indian cricket circles, however, his talent in the game was never in question. Having played just a handful of games in domestic cricket in India – for Goa and Karnataka – Ninan now plies his trade in Australia, where he is in contention to get a place in the Big Bash League (BBL) in times to come. If this does materialise, Ninan will be the first Indian to play in the BBL. Ninan has also played cricket in England and The Netherlands, making his cricketing journey all the more exciting. In an exclusive interview to Sportswallah.com, Ninan talks about his cricketing journey, his experience playing in different countries, his BBL aspirations and more.
Sportswallah (SW): From playing First-Class and List A cricket for Goa and Karnataka to playing cricket in Australia: Tell us a bit about this journey.
Ryan Ninan (RN): In about two weeks, it will make it 16 years since I played my first ever representative game for Karnataka in the Under -16 category. It feels like yesterday that I passed out of school and then cricket happened to me.
I had a very good first season for Karnataka in the age group category and it was followed up with a call-up to the CCI cricket academy in Mumbai in 2002. It was by far the best experience of a junior national camp I have ever had and also spending 2 months in a city like Mumbai really helped me develop a sense of belief and gratitude. Things really started moving uphill after that and I feel fortunate to have played an integral part of all the age group categories for Karnataka. I got into the Ranji Trophy set up in Karnataka in 2003 at the age of 17 along with Robin Uthappa and we were the youngest back then. Bowling to the likes of Thilak Naidu, J Arun Kumar, Barrington Rowland, etc certainly enabled me to develop my art and helped me become a consistent performer in age group cricket. I got rewarded with call-ups to the NCA Under-17, U-19 and U-22 batches over that period.
Unfortunately, the opportunity at the senior level seemed hard to come by. I came close to making my debut for Karnataka in the 2007 season after bagging a truckload of wickets the whole year but it was not meant to be. The following year Goa and Kerala presented me with an opportunity. I decided to take up Dodda Ganesh’s (then Goa coach) invite and play for Goa as a professional that season. It turned out to be a reasonably decent season and Goa finished as semi-finalists in the plate. We went down to Bengal in the semis. I got 88 not out that game and grabbed a couple of wickets too. I found it funny that I was left out of the List A squad after that.
I was advised to move back to Karnataka the following season and got picked in the Ranji Trophy squad again after a reasonably good KPL. The debut for Karnataka didn’t come by and eventually ended up playing only the last List A league game that year against Hyderabad. I got 16 not out and picked up a 2 for that game and then got left out of the squad for the knockouts for reasons unknown. I was a part of the Karnataka set up for the next 3 seasons after that but never got a look in until the List A games in February 2013.
We won the South zone championship that year but it was probably the first time I didn’t live up to the standards I set for myself. I was rightly left out for the knockouts. It was also my 10th year in the probable, so a part of me also knew that waiting for the opportunities and not playing cricket was affecting my growth.
In 2013, I didn’t secure an IPL contract and that was a blessing in disguise. I had the chance to come over to Australia and train and travel through for a few weeks. It was my second visit to Australia, after my first visit in 2005 with the Karnataka senior team. We had toured Brisbane for a quadrangular back then. The trip in 2013 gave me an opportunity to reflect. Eventually, after that trip, I decided that I was going to start a new chapter in a country and get back to playing the game for the reason I started.
My parents were born and brought up in East Africa before settling in India so I knew I would eventually move and experience life overseas too. With cricket not going as planned for a few years, it presented me with the best opportunity to start afresh. I got back from that trip and enrolled for a Masters in Sports Management at Deakin University and moved to Melbourne in Jan 2014. I joined Hawthorn Monash CC which is now Kingston Hawthorn CC. It has been an amazing journey since and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined 10 years ago that I’d be living in a country like Australia and being granted my Permanent Residency thanks to the support of Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria.
SW: When you started playing cricket in India, who were your coaches? Do you still keep in touch with them and the friends you made while playing here?
RN: My story to becoming an off-spinner is rather funny. I started off as a medium pacer in school at the age of 13 and had no specialized training in cricket before that, except for street cricket. I was too chubby a teenager and more often than not at training I’d find myself getting tired after a few spells of bowling, so would bowl off- spin until the session was done. A guest coach at school (Mr. Haridhar) spotted my off-spin in the nets and suggested that I shift to off-spin because he sensed it was better than my medium-pace. The rest is history. I had the opportunity of meeting him and Mr. Shashidhar, my school coach at Frank Anthony Public School on my recent visit to India.
I’ve had the privilege of working with some great cricketers of the past growing up in Karnataka, from Mr. Raghuram Bhat to EAS Prasanna, to Mr. Rajesh Kamath and Sanath Kumar. Their valuable inputs through camps and state tours have helped me become the spinner I am today.
However, in 2001 after finishing with standard 10, I joined KIOC in Bangalore. RX Muralidhar was my first coach at that camp. I have been working very closely with him on my bowling since the start of 2016 again and is probably the only one I keep in touch with quite frequently. Between seasons, I make it a point to come down to Bangalore and spend time with him at the nets.
I’ve made some great friends because of sport in India and don’t think I can ever trade some of those relationships. Mayank Agarwal, Ganesh Satish, Kunal Kapoor, KP Appanna, Jonathan Rongsen are probably the only ones I am in touch with constantly because we shared many a tours rooming together and have developed a great bond outside of cricket too.
SW: Were you frustrated with the lack of chances in domestic cricket in India?
RN: To wake up everyday and do something you love is the best feeling ever. Things in Karnataka did not go according to plan after age group cricket and when I was younger there were days I was frustrated and disappointed, however, without those experiences I would not be in the place I am today. I do believe there are plenty of other cricketers in India who also have their stories.
When you look at the larger picture, India is a country of a billion or so out of which half a million probably play cricket everyday on the streets, out of which many aspire to play for their school, club, state and country. I know a lot more talented cricketers in India and Australia who have not had a chance to play competitive cricket. When I look back I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunities only a select few get in India.
SW: You did play a couple of IPL matches for Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL 2011. What was the experience like sharing the dressing room with the likes of Daniel Vettori, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and others?
RN: I was with Kings XI Punjab for a couple of seasons before I made my debut in the IPL for RCB. It wasn’t the best debut (vs Deccan Chargers) as I was at the receiving end of my former state mate, Bharat Chipli, who played a fine knock that day. I got a wicket in my opening over though. My second game was against Chennai Super Kings. It was better and I got a couple of wickets there and never played after that. It was certainly a great learning experience being out there on the park with so many top internationals.
Virat was still making a mark as an international cricketer and had a fantastic IPL in 2011. To see him take Indian cricket forward is inspiring. He is certainly leading the way for the next generation of cricketers and is the perfect example of mixing flair and work ethics.
ABD is a legend on the field but an even greater human being off it too. He is certainly someone I admire a lot because he’s well rounded. Like him, I love strumming a tune or 2 on the guitar. None of the internationals make you feel out of place and I must say at RCB, our dressing room atmosphere was absolutely incredible for those couple of years.
SW: Tell us about your experience playing for the Hawthorn-Monash Hawks/Kingston Hawthorn Cricket Club in the Victoria Premier Cricket.
RN: Hawthorn Monash has been like a breath of fresh air. Moving to Australia has given me an opportunity to re-invent myself as a cricketer and start a fresh chapter. I am so grateful to the Club President, Mr. Petar Ivetic and everyone else involved at the club for welcoming me. Victorian premier cricket is one of the strongest club competitions in the world with a lot of the Australian internationals making themselves available to play quite often. There’s not a day that I have felt out of place in this setup or culture. It has certainly helped me transform my fitness, make good lifestyle choices and re-ignite the desire to be the best cricketer I can be.
My relationship with the club started in Jan 2014 when I moved here for university. I played the 2nd half of that season and had a reasonably good start. The club gave me the opportunity to lead the 1st XI side the following season and it turned out to be the best summer for the club over the last decade. I had a great season too personally and I was rewarded with a call-up to the Victorian premier All-stars team in 2015. It comprises the best players in the club competition and we play warm-up games vs Melbourne BBL franchises. I think that season also answered a lot of questions for me and helped me brush aside the doubts, insecurities that had cropped up for a few years in India while waiting for an opportunity. I feel like the 16-year-old ‘me’ again.
Unfortunately, in Dec 2015, I had to return to India because I did not get an extension on my work visa. I missed the last Australian season because of it. I only recently got back to Australia for the start of the season and to get to call this place home henceforth is still something I’m trying to digest. It is great to be back out on the park with the rest of the group and cannot thank God enough for seeing this through.
SW: You did extremely well with both bat and ball in England playing for Grappenhall Cricket Club. How was your experience there?
RN: My summer at Grappenhall was absolutely incredible. I have a lot of family in the UK so going back there after a decade was like going back to another home. I was fortunate to be placed at a great family club that looked after me really well. The conditions were way different from India and Australia and especially early in the season the ball moves around a lot. As a spinner, it takes a few games to get used to before you can feel the ball on your fingers.
I still remember the first warm-up game in the month of April, it was 4 degrees and I had to walk into bat with 4 layers of clothing and I could not even feel the ball on my fingers while bowling. I was up in the north near Manchester so we had a lot of rain affected games too, which gave me an opportunity to learn how to bowl with a wet ball. It turned out to be a great season for the club and personally as well.
I think every young cricketer around the world should play a season in the UK, provided it is a strong league. It will certainly help them develop their game further and also give them an opportunity to grow off the field too. Playing as an overseas professional, performing in every game is mandatory. If you don’t, the boys certainly love reminding you that you are the paid player.
I had a wonderful time off the field too attending Wimbledon, Coldplay, Creamfields and to top it all a Manchester United games Hopefully I get to go back there for another season in the future!!!
SW: What prompted you to play cricket in the Netherlands after that?
The ECB has changed its visa rules as of 2017, which means that only amateur cricketers who have not played any form of representative cricket or current First-Class players (players who have played in the last 12 months) are allowed to enter into the UK. Grappenhall would have been my first choice again, however, only Ireland and Netherlands were an option for me with the change. HCC in Netherlands presented me with a wonderful opportunity and I also knew the other overseas player on the squad, Jonathan Vandiar, who was a former teammate of mine at RCB. It just made it a very easy choice and was certainly a great learning experience.
SW: With T20 leagues played all around the world, would you like to play in one of those? Have you been approached by any league yet?
RN: With moving away from India, I believe I am in a position to qualify for T20 leagues around the world, however, the immediate focus is to do well in the current Australian season. I did have a couple of teams in the BBL show interest a couple of years ago but unfortunately I was not an Australian resident back then. Hopefully with me qualifying now, a break in the BBL isn’t too far away.
SW: I learnt that you are an accredited BCCI and Cricket Australia Level 2 coach. Is coaching something you are considering seriously in the future?
RN: Not all is true!!! I am a qualified Cricket Australia Level 1 coach and did attend the Level 2 course as well; however, I had to return to India and hence could not submit my workbook within the designated time period. Hopefully I can get my Level 2 certificate soon too. I am not a BCCI qualified coach.
I certainly have enjoyed coaching so far in the limited opportunities that I have had. However, it is hard to say at this point if it is something I will consider doing full-time in the future. I love working with children and their overall development and have an interest in the management side of things.