Rohan Kunnummal’s India A call-up: Cricket-crazy dad’s 15-year dream and dramatic Kerala comeback

It has been a surreal seven days for Rohan Kunnummal and his father Susil. The path to a shared dream and an unwavering commitment to cricket for 15 years attained undeniable clarity when Rohan earned his maiden India A call-up for its two four-day matches in Bangladesh.

In under a year, Rohan has affirmed his spot as Kerala’s opener across formats with a stupendous run in his second coming to the State team. A record-breaking three successive hundreds in the Ranji Trophy 2021-22 season was followed by a century on his Duleep Trophy debut for South Zone in September – the first Kerala batter to achieve both landmarks.

Following his remarkable run in red-ball cricket, Rohan’s focus nimbly shifted to improving his limited-overs game. His stroke-making witnessed a fluent changeover in the group stage of the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy when he slammed his first and second List A centuries in Bengaluru. While Thursday’s formal announcement from the BCCI confirmed his first foreign assignment, it has been a week since Rohan learned about his call-up.

“I came to know about it last week. A BCCI official called to inform me about the selection and asked about my jersey number and all. It took a while to digest everything (laughs),” Rohan told Sportsstar on Thursday.

Having slowly shaken off the overwhelming moment, Rohan is now looking forward to sharing a dressing room with Cheteshwar Pujara sir.

“I am not sure if I would be able to sit next to him (laughs). We will always have that respect, right? You have seen them in matches on television for years now and it will be a fortunate moment to be able to spend time with Pujara sir. You always have these sorts of dreams but I never expected to get here this soon,” said Rohan, who has amassed 769 runs at a stunning average of 96.12 in his six-match First Class career.

The 24-year-old from Koyilandi in Kozhikode district said he owes his journey to a cricket-crazy father who thrust him into the game at the age of nine.

Susil, an ardent follower of the game, was a passionate cricketer himself in college. Skilfully challenged, by his own admission, Susil could not enhance his game beyond the playing XI of the Kerala Agricultural University team.

“I still see it as my biggest achievement (laughs). Although I couldn’t make it big, I stayed in touch with the game even after college,” Susil remarked.

Susil remained a regular in the division league cricket of Kozhikode for 30 years until the recent COVID-19 lockdowns. The club cricket scene in the north Malabar region would later become Rohan’s formative arena. While a supportive family enabled Susil and Rohan to focus on cricket, the decision to pursue a career in the sport came soon after a nine-year-old Rohan went unnoticed in a district selection camp.

Susil says the father-son duo used to play together for the Railview club until recently. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“There was a camp that followed that selection where former Kerala captain Sunil Oasis was in attendance. I approached him for a serious discussion about Rohan and after seeing him play, Sunil told me to back the kid for a career. It gave us a lot of confidence and after discussions with my wife and my brother, we took the plunge,” said Susil.

“Rohan started by playing for the Railview club after being trained by Santosh Kumar at the Sussex Academy in Kozhikode. We used to play together for the club (laughs) until recently,” Susil recollected.

Rohan climbed the rungs of the State age-group cricket rapidly, so much so that the skinny 15-year-old was fast-tracked by the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) directly into the Under-25 category.

“Around the same time, we were asked to play league cricket in Kochi for the Mattancherry Youngsters Cricket Association club. The quality of cricket and the bowlers he faced was better there,” Susil said.

In 2017, Rohan made his List A debut for Kerala but fell out of favor after two matches. The then 18-year-old also had a brief presence in the India U-19 team before the perils of breaking into the next level halted him for a couple of seasons. “He had always remained confident about his game and I feel that’s where he had an edge over his peers,” Susil said.

Leveling up in lockdown

When the entire domestic cricket structure came to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, Rohan charted the road to his dramatic turnaround while being confined to his home.

“There was an impression among cricketers in the Kerala circle that he had a weak physique. He was not well-built and we made up during the lockdown with the help of Vysakh Krishna (Kerala Strength and Conditioning Coach). KCA directly put him in charge of improving Rohan’s fitness. That period turned out to be a blessing and that has helped his game immensely,” Susil said.

“There were opinions that he could not score past 60-70 runs. His hands used to become weak and that affected his timing. After his transformation, those knocks began to cross the 100-run mark. We only realized the importance of such fitness levels after seeing the results (laughs),” said Susil, who dabbles between supporting Rohan’s game and his job in a network marketing firm.

Rohan acknowledged the transformation and believes his game is now suited for all formats, having also put in hours to improve his power-hitting game before the season.

“My confidence level has improved. Your mindset varies a lot when you’re scoring runs, so that has picked up automatically. Mentally adapting to situations and making minute changes according to the format is all that I am looking for now,” Rohan said as he prepared to join the India A squad in Kolkata before its flight to Bangladesh.

While Rohan, a passive Brazil football fan, leaves his lively Kerala teammates who are torn between Argentina, Portugal and Germany in their support for the FIFA World Cup, Kerala coach Tinu Yohannan has a sound message for him.

“He has a long way ahead and these opportunities are stepping stones for him to get a spot in the national side. He is young and an opportunity like this won’t come back again. He has the maturity to use it well,” the former India bowler remarked.

Rohan has made life easy for the Kerala team which has ended its wait for an opener that can singlehandedly take the game away from the opposition. In his brief spell, Rohan has displayed signs of an aggressive batter who is particularly abrasive against spin.

Kunnummal struck a List A-career best 134 off 101 against Goa in the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy earlier this month.

Kunnummal struck a List A-career best 134 off 101 against Goa in the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy earlier this month. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

“It’s a positive that the selectors took notice of his talent. Rohan has always been a match-winner with his aggressive batting. When he scores, there are high chances that the team wins because that’s the standard of his performance. His innings can make a big difference and that’s been the case since his junior days. His hand-eye coordination is brilliant, something that I’ve only seen in a very few batters,” observed Yohannan.

Rohan is hoping to keep an open mind and tap into all the resources that he will come across on the tour.

“This will be my first tour abroad. My goal remains simple. I will try to maximize my opportunities and help the team to win the series. And interacting with seniors like Pujara sir and Umesh Yadav will be great for my game,” Rohan remarked.

All said and done, Susil is waiting for his next session with Rohan back home where they indulge in extended throwdown sessions.

“We give a lot of emphasis to the practice that we have done at home over the years. I bowl around 300 balls to him every day and that will remain the case whenever Rohan is home, no excuses,” Susil said as a door to their collective dream of representing India in whites seems more real than ever.

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