His tea with lime and ginger is getting cold even as he pours his heart out. In his recently-acquired accent, he speaks about his glorious days as a junior cricketer for Karnataka, his time with Greg Chappell at the National Cricket Academy’s age-group camps in Bangalore, the frustrations that followed, reconnecting with Christianity, the desire to expand his horizons, and learning to live in the present. Not long into our interaction, he comes across as a friendly and articulate man aware of his place in the big picture. When you tell him that he is a doppelganger of Shoaib Malik, he flashes a knowing smile.
Ryan Ninan, now nearly 32, was the most promising young spinner of his time in India before losing out due to lack of opportunities. Now, he looks at a future where playing in the Big Bash League and representing a state team in the Sheffield Shield could be a reality.
Ninan played four Ranji Trophy matches for Goa, six List A games for Karnataka and two Twenty20s for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League. His last representative appearance was for Karnataka against Andhra, in February 2013. He quietly slipped off the radar after that.
Ninan is now back in the news after getting his Australian Permanent Resident Visa in July, making him eligible to play at the highest level in that country as a local. If he goes on to play first-class cricket in Australia as a domestic player, he will be only the third Indian, after Rusi Surti and Emmanuel Benjamin, to do so.
Whether he adds to his tally of caps is dependent on form, fitness and team dynamics, but that Ninan can pursue his passion again more than four years after he faded away is in itself a fascinating story of persistence.
Once he realised that his cricketing career had hit a dead end, Nandan Kamath, a popular sports lawyer who represented Karnataka in age-group cricket, encouraged Ninan to enrol for his masters in sports management at Deakin University in Melbourne in January 2014.
Ninan had first visited Australia in 2005 with the Karnataka State Cricket Association team, which won the Cricket Australia Emerging Players Tournament. The outdoor sporting life and “adventurous culture” there had fascinated him. The “love” drew him back to Australia after nine years, and his unique background in a classroom helped him stand out. Soon, he was back to playing cricket for Kingston Hawthorn in Victoria’s First Grade Competition.
The president of the club told Ninan that he could be eligible for the BBL. The general rule in Australia for Permanent Resident Visa is to wait two years after completing graduation, but Ninan tried for the Distinguished Talent Visa – “If they feel you can add value to their community, they will grant you.”
The case officer told Ninan that the IPL was not internationally recognised and rejected his application the first time. He returned to Australia on a work visa, and was selected to the Victorian Premier All Stars team for two warm-up games against Melbourne Renegades and Melbourne Stars ahead of the 2015-16 BBL. This was on the back of his good performances as Kingston Hawthorn’s captain in 2014-15.
Dismissing Peter Handscomb with a doosra, getting David Hussey stumped and making runs with the bat got him noticed. He remembers missing graduation day to attend the team dinner which fell on the same date.
“That day was a good reminder for me, and answered all my doubts,” Ninan remembers. “I told my mum that this is my true calling. I needed to go through a few ups and downs in my career, but this is where I want to be. This is God’s way of telling me that this is the gift I have given you, so make use of it in the best way you can.”
One of the BBL franchises wanted to offer Ninan a community contract, but he did not get an extension on his work visa and returned to India. He played club cricket in England and the Netherlands, and missed the 2016-17 domestic season in Australia because of visa issues. Letters of recommendation from Cricket Australia, Cricket Victoria, Melbourne Renegades and Chappell, who remembered Ninan’s control and ability to bowl the doosra at the NCA, strengthened his case. On July 12, 2017, Ninan finally got the stamp he had been chasing.
“First-class cricket has not worked out for me the way I would have wanted it to, but I suppose what has happened so far is preparation for what is to come,” Ninan philosophises. “I could have easily given up. Financially, the IPL made me very secure, and I come from a very strong academic background. If I can continue to play for the reason I started… I know there will be pressure as you go up the ladder, but it is a privileged part of sport. As long as I can stay within myself; the lessons I have learnt over the last four years I can’t trade it for anything in my life.”
You are reminded of Fawad Ahmed’s journey as Ninan shares his, but he quickly points out that Ahmed came to Australia as a refugee and is now a citizen. Citizenship is Ninan’s next goal.
Ninan never played first-class cricket for Karnataka despite picking up 184 wickets for the state in age-group competitions over six seasons. People in the know say being an offspinner, Ninan was in direct competition with Udit Patel, son of Brijesh Patel who has been an influential figure at the KSCA for the better part of the last two decades.
Ninan even played a season of junior cricket for Assam in 2006-07 before returning to Karnataka the following season. But a debut in the senior team eluded him before he took up coach Dodda Ganesh’s offer to play for Goa in November 2008.
“It is a question I keep answering a lot,” he says when I ask him about how he dealt with stories of Udit, his classmate in college, keeping him out of the side. “A lot of my closest friends keep asking me whether I don’t feel hurt about it. When I was young, I suppose I was hurt. At that point of time, it was heartbreaking and frustrating to see other guys who were with you at NCA go on to play India A. You always wonder whether your opportunity is going to come or not. People were sympathising with me, saying you could have been here if this was not there and stuff like that. But probably he did what was best for his son. It’s natural for any father; it’s the case anywhere.
“After I was done with age-group cricket, all I was thinking was ‘When am I going to get a chance or am I going to be benched for the whole season’? I had waited for four-five years to get that first-class experience and I just wanted to get it out of my way,” he adds. “At Goa, I knew I would at least get the full season, and it would help me know where I stand.” The numbers for Goa weren’t staggering; he finished with ten wickets at 34.90 and a best of 3 for 46, apart from making 205 runs at 51.25 including an unbeaten 88 against a Bengal side that featured Sourav Ganguly.
As it turned out, Ninan returned to Karnataka after one season with Goa. He, however, played just six 50-over games in four seasons, with a shoulder injury sustained in a Karnataka Premier League game in 2010 proving to be the death knell.
“From that day onwards, I spent a lot of time on the bench, not travelling with the team, just attending Ranji Trophy probable camps,” he goes on. “I calculated that I had played 20-30 days of cricket including (two in) IPL, a few club games in two-three years. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a considerable drop in the amount of cricket I play now as compared to junior cricket days’. That probably eroded my confidence and stopped my growth. No matter how good a cricketer you are, you always have to have some game time before you get going.”
As insecurity crept in, Ninan says he lost connect with his faith despite having grown up with a strong value system. He admits that he surrounded himself with a lot of people who he could have easily avoided, and it clouded his judgment. “I stopped thinking like my unique self and started believing that I have to be like others to belong.”
Even though he played just two games in four seasons of IPL for Kings XI Punjab and Bangalore, Ninan does not think it left him frustrated. He says he learnt about life outside cricket from the likes of Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and AB de Villiers, but the period between IPLs when he hardly played is what eventually drove him to Australia.
“Going to Australia meant I did not have to listen to anyone’s thoughts or opinions from here. It helped me understand where I came from, why I started cricket, what worked for me as a youngster and what did not after that,” Ninan opens up. “These last four years have been one of the best phases of my life. I now value simple things like family and close friends more. I now have a core group which is going to stick to me, no matter when I live my dream.”
Ninan started spending more time at church in Australia, and soon became a part of Front Foot Faith, a group that has Vernon Philander, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Temba Bavuma and many Australian cricketers. It helped him significantly in finding answers to bigger questions about life.
“I did not want to be one of those people who ten years down the line is still abusing the system or still carrying negative thoughts and regrets,” Ninan, who trains under R Muralidhar at RX Cricket Academy in Bangalore whenever he is in India, continues. “I want to live a life of adventure. Australia has helped me clear out my past and make peace with it.
“Realistically I would say in next 6 to 18 months, I would aim to get a Big Bash contract. If it works out this year, it will be great,” he adds. “I would love to be back at IPL because I still qualify as a local, but the immediate thing is to get into Big Bash and then push to get into any of the state team.”
Every season, around 500 boys participate in the BCCI’s Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy, but only the best go on to make a full career as a professional cricketer. It could be a painful experience not only for the players, but also for their families. The lesson in Ninan’s journey is that cricket is a lifelong friend. As Ninan, who wants to take up a man-management role in sport in future, puts it: “I have got my youth back. If you stay the course, experience makes you stronger and helps you battle each thought and get over it.”