Time for a new beginning

Once Karnataka's brightest prospects, Ryan Ninan now dreams of playing in the BBL.

Former Karnataka all-rounder Ryan Ninan in Bengaluru on Friday.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

A little over ten years ago, coaches in Karnataka’s cricket structure were certain that Ryan Ninan was set for bigger things. He emerged through the State’s junior sides as an off-spinner of great promise, and was among Karnataka's Ranji Trophy 'probables' at 17. There were stints at the National Cricket Academy, in camps for the country's top talents. “He doesn't bowl like an under-19 bowler but like a veteran,” the State U-19 coach, Rajesh Kamat, told Sportstar back in 2004. “He is a definite Ranji team prospect and maybe, God willing, can even go beyond that."

Not many foresaw then that Ninan would play no first-class cricket for Karnataka, or that he would manage only four Ranji Trophy games, for Goa, during his career. They did not imagine that his record would be limited to six List-A matches over three years and two IPL games in four seasons. Yet today, Ninan has no regret or bitterness, nor does he bear anyone ill-will. He is about to begin a fresh chapter in his life and is free of the self-doubt that once gnawed at him.

In 2014, a year after his last competitive appearance for Karnataka, Ninan left for Australia for a course in Sports Management at Melbourne's Deakin University, “having made peace with the fact” that he did not have a future in cricket at home. He joined Kingston Hawthorn Cricket Club in Victoria's first division and by the end of the 2014-15 season – when he scored 524 runs (at 65.5) and took 25 wickets in 14 matches – had drawn the attention of more than one Big Bash League franchise. This July, the 31-year-old got his Australian Permanent Resident Visa, making him eligible to play top tier domestic cricket in that country.

“As a youngster you do feel upset. You do feel disheartened when you know you're the best off-spinner around and still not playing. But if I had allowed that situation to get the better of me, I'd have given up cricket at 27-28.”

“A couple of BBL teams have shown interest,” he says. “That would be the immediate goal. Even first-class cricket is a possibility in the next one or two years. I know I'm an all-rounder and one of the few off-spinners with a doosra. In the next 6-18 months there's potential for a lot of things.”

Ninan’s move to Australia was precipitated, to some extent, by a frustration over his stalled career back home. He also saw himself as more than just a cricketer: his father K.N. Ninan is an environmental ecologist who has just authored his eighth book, and his mother a mathematics teacher; he wanted to study again. Back in 2008, he had shifted base to Goa after the Ranji Trophy call-up he awaited from Karnataka never came. Two years before that, he had even turned out for Assam U-22s. He returned each time, but only endured more disappointment. There were perhaps other factors at play, like the alleged nepotism that meant Ninan was kept out of the side by another off-spinner.

“It's a buried chapter now,” he says. “As a youngster you do feel upset. You do feel disheartened when you know you're the best off-spinner around and still not playing. But if I had allowed that situation to get the better of me, I'd have given up cricket at 27-28.” Ninan understands that he's the not the first – and won't be the last – with such complaints in Indian cricket. “My story isn't unique. It's a sport where there's so much money involved. I've been to Assam and Goa...a lot of systems aren't perfect. So many guys have missed out. If I'd got an opportunity at that time I probably would've been somewhere else, but I'm glad everything that happened to me did happen to me. It has only made me stronger.”

There were times when he wondered, Ninan admits, if the fault lay within. “I was doing the right things. But if you're waiting and not playing you start questioning yourself. Those two-three years after age-group cricket, I drifted away from who I was as a bowler. A lot of guys who were with me at the NCA started playing for India-A and I was still waiting to play first-class cricket. I started wondering if I had to change something in my bowling. You start going away from what works for you. If I had had the right guidance it would've probably helped me stay on the path. But it's OK. What lies ahead is probably more fun.”

In the last three years, which have included stints in England (Grappenhall CC in the Cheshire County League) and the Netherlands (Hague CC), Ninan has regained his confidence as a cricketer. The past no longer casts a shadow. “From 15-23 everyone's telling you you're set for great things but you don't believe it yourself,” he says. “You don't realize you're good enough...I spent a lot of days waiting, frustrated, being idle. Now I think what happened then is actually a blessing in disguise. I would't have had this life. Sometimes you focus so much on one door, that you forget there are others. If you want to do what you love, the opportunity can come from anywhere.”