From the little you observe of Rohan Kunnummal before he goes out to bat, it feels like watching a fidgety student who is nervous about an impending test.
Full gear on, two minutes to start of play, his opening partner Mayank Agarwal - an India international - is waiting beside the boundary fence. Rohan is busy scampering through a quick round of throwdowns, like a final run through the notes that he’d been busy preparing over the last six months.
On Thursday, Rohan aced yet another test as he took the field for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy semifinal against North Zone at the Salem Cricket Foundation Ground. The nervy student transforms into a dexterous prodigy when he reaches the centre. There are no flashy mannerisms, save for the awkward rush in the running between the wickets. As if someone had turned on a switch in his mind, Rohan then exerts command over the opposition.
Navdeep Saini, another India international who had spent a part of the summer playing County cricket for Kent, was dealt with disdain by Rohan. Such was the impact that Saini was taken off after just four overs during a crucial opening spell on what turned out to be a flat surface. Rohan greeted Saini with a straight drive in his second over and left onlookers in awe with another stroke in the next over. Saini shed his fuller length and banged one in short, only to have it fly over the slip-cordon for six - Rohan had swiped it over the field with a manic reflex, a sign of things to come.
Over the next five hours, Rohan methodically made his way to a fourth First Class hundred and even forged two century partnerships with Agarwal and captain Hanuma Vihari. “I am quite fortunate to be here. To play with guys you’ve admired and seen on TV, be it Mayank bhai or Vihari bhai. Being in their presence automatically lifts you, and I felt it when I went out to bat. It’s just been three days with the bunch, but I’ve gained a lot from this positivity,” Rohan said after his stroke-filled 143 off 225 balls.
In his sixth innings in First Class cricket, the 24-year-old became the first Kerala batter to record a Duleep Trophy century - his fourth in the FC format. Three of his centuries came in the Ranji Trophy 2021-22 - six months ago - where a sequence of 107, 129, 106* and 75 would announce his arrival.
Kerala wasn't known for prodigious batting talents for a long time, but winds of change arrived in the form of Sanju Samson. Rohan is the latest addition to the list and holds promise as an all-format player. He will be in the frontline of Kerala’s batting this season alongside his mentors Samson, Vishnu Vinod and skipper Sachin Baby. Rohan credits Samson’s influence on his game and the brand of aggressive cricket that Kerala has embraced over the last couple of seasons, irrespective of results. “Sanju bhai njangalk okke daivathine poleya (Sanju is like a god for us youngsters). The biggest advantage for us is that we can call him anytime. He is not a person that is easily accessible, and now he is a big figure as he captains an IPL franchise. His style and approach to the game are very different from the rest,” Rohan said.
Rohan’s target in the off-season was to improve his shot-making range to excel in the shorter formats. "I have tried to improve my range. I was focused on preparing for Kerala’s first tournament which is the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s - how can I help the team succeed - that was my main concern. There weren't any special preparations for Duleep. With the style of my game, I was confident I could adapt quickly," said Rohan.
Rohan topped the run charts in the KCA Club T20 Championship in the off-season where he hit 23 sixes in 10 matches. He also spent time in Chennai playing league cricket.
Biding his time
Rohan, who hails from Kozhikode, has tasted success after a rather topsy-turvy start. He made his Kerala debut in the Vijay Hazare Trophy back in 2016. In the same year, he became the leading run-getter of the 2016-17 Vinoo Mankad Trophy Zonal tournament ahead of contemporaries Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw. It earned him a spot in the Indian U-19 side. However, as things would turn out, Rohan was removed from the squad as the team mentored by current India coach Rahul Dravid was focussing on the 2018 U19 World Cup, and Rohan had crossed the age limit. Rohan was dejected and had to wait two more years to secure a spot in the state team across formats.
“When you see your contemporaries make it to the next level, you begin to think why you have been stuck at the same spot. But there’s no point brooding over it for too long. Like the famous dialogue in Malayalam, ‘oronninum athintedaaya samayam undu, dasa (everything has its own appropriate time’ (laughs). I waited patiently and did what was right without making mistakes. When you do those things perfectly, you believe your time will come. That was my source of strength in that period,” Rohan said.
Rohan is hopeful of Kerala cricket’s progress and has his eyes locked on earning the state’s first domestic title. “When a trophy comes to Kerala, I am sure people’s outlook from outside the state will change. Even if we have done well, only five to six players from our state are in the IPL. And only one or two is constantly there in the XI. If we manage to win at least one of the trophies, the players will naturally get to the next level. Cricket in Kerala will progress. That’s a big dream,” Rohan said.
After an unabated purple patch in his first full-fledged domestic season, Rohan will be keen for an encore. He has taken guard once again, but the test has only just begun.