Driven by their love for cricket, A.C. Prathiban, K.H. Gopinath, K. Bharath Shankar and M. Prabhu brush aside their setbacks to make a mark in this year’s TNCA first division league season

During the 2010-11 TNCA first division league season, A.C. Prathiban, turning out for India Pistons, discovered he had a minor facial paralysis. It was a crippling blow as the batsman couldn't sight the ball properly. “I couldn't even close my right eye. It was the toughest phase of my life,” he recalls. With his stronger suit stifled, Prathiban wanted to find a way to keep playing cricket.

“I started bowling off-spin for sheer survival,” he says. “I picked up two five-wicket hauls that season and from there on, started bowling regularly.” Having begun as a back-up bowler to fellow offie M. Prabhu, the very next year he became a frontline option once the latter left for Jolly Rovers. “I was the leading wicket-taker (55) in 2011-12 and 2012-13 (48),” says the 24-year-old, who moved to Young Stars this season and emerged as the season's second highest wicket-taker (48).

Accustomed to taking the road less travelled, Prathiban's approach to bowling, too, isn't about kowtowing to established norms. “I don't think flighting the ball is the only way to get wickets. I bowl a flatter trajectory and it works well for me.”

Prathiban, who has played one List A game, is evidently disappointed at not finding a place in the State team. “Last year, I was in the Tamil Nadu limited-overs side, but this year I am not in any of the teams. I don't know why.” He is also averse to setting targets. The alumnus of Guru Nanak College acknowledges the support of former Tamil Nadu spinner Sunil Subramanian, India Pistons coach Jaffer Ashique Ali, and the Young Stars management.

K.H. Gopinath, this season's leading run-getter (1036, average: 86.33), has a similar back-story. A prolific scorer for Santhome, Gopinath's was a familiar name in the school cricket scene about a decade ago. Cut to 2011-12, a knee injury laid him low. “I had a meniscus problem in the right knee. I was operated upon in 2012 and I didn't play the last season,” says the Jolly Rovers 'keeper and opening bat.

This season, though, he has found his bearings with aplomb. “I put greater emphasis on batting rather than keeping. I would get out for rash shots in the past, but now I am a lot more patient.”

Spurred by competition

The 25-year-old says the competitive atmosphere in Rovers pushes him to perform better. “You are always in an uncomfortable zone as there are many players pushing for a spot. You can never take your place for granted.” The team's coach, G. Jaykumar, he says, has helped his batting a great deal.

Gopinath, who made his First-Class debut at the age of 19, admits that while he had kept wickets reasonably well then he hadn't done justice to his batting potential. “I hope my time will eventually come.”

His opening partner, K. Bharath Shankar, the second highest-scorer this season (952, 59.50) has also been a key factor in Jolly Rovers' second consecutive first-division title victory. Together, Gopinath and Bharath facilitated strong starts from which the side could build on.

‘Barry’, as he's called in the league circuit, attributes much of his individual success to the exposure trip to the U.K. that the Rovers organised last summer. “I have changed my whole set-up right from my stance to my back-lift. I played a lot straighter this season.”

The 19-year-old has been selected for the Tamil Nadu team that's taking part in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament. “It's the first time I have been named in a State side. I never expected it.”

That Prabhu's name appears at the bottom half of this article has no correlation to his contribution to Jolly Rovers' successful campaign.

With 57 wickets at 21.81, the soft-spoken, bearded Prabhu has chased success in his own understated fashion. “I tried to flight the ball a little more and made subtle changes in pace. I had picked up 40-plus wickets in the last four seasons and wanted to retain that good mindset,” says the 26-year-old, who topped the wicket-chart this season.

Prabhu, who has been in and out of the State side, believes he has matured over the years. “I read batsmen and wickets better now,” says the shy off-spinner, who's part of the Tamil Nadu team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament.