India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
At 10.40 pm, Sreesanth is finally “done with practice”. He texts the reason for his delayed response, assuring that he would call after “a quick shower”.
Sreesanth is looking forward to September, when he would be eligible to play serious cricket again. Seven years ago, his career had come to a grinding halt for reasons well documented. The global coronavirus pandemic and lockdown haven’t affected Sreesanth’s comeback rush.
He looks to the future while rekindling the past. The fast bowler reminisces about the good old days, when he was a star – his Man-of-the-Match performance at the Wanderers in Johannesburg 14 years ago that helped India secure their first-ever Test win in South Africa.
The game was played from December 15-18, 2006, and Sreesanth returned with an eight-wicket match haul, including a first innings five-for, in the visitors’ 123-run victory.
Giving it back
“You should be thankful to Mahatma Gandhi,” Sreesanth told Andre Nel. The war dance – ‘taming the horse’, as the Indian paceman puts it – after hitting the South Africa quick for a six would follow. The Mahatma reference was linked to the great man’s fight against discrimination in South Africa, which inspired Nelson Mandela, the country’s liberator, and brought an end to apartheid.
“I told them a lot of things. The message was clear; don’t mess with this Indian team. They always believed they wouldn’t get it back. Dada (Sourav Ganguly) started (to give it back). I was kindergarten. He was a PhD. And I think Virat Kohli is also a doctorate. I cared a damn if people thought I was mad,” Sreesanth allows himself a hearty laugh.
The build-up to the Test had a touch of acrimony, with Jacques Rudolph stoking the flames.
“Before the Test, we had a tour game at Potchefstroom and Jacques Rudolph (he captained Rest of South Africa) had made a statement, ‘Sreesanth is an overrated bowler and they (India) have a bad pace attack’. He was specifically asked about me and he had said, ‘I don’t rate him as a (Test) bowler’. I can proudly say he couldn’t score a single run against me (in that game). His comment really charged me up as we went into the first Test.”
Ganguly’s helping hand
Ganguly was making a comeback to the Indian team in that series, and given his fallout with then India coach Greg Chappell, was probably just one failure away from being dropped again. But not only did the former captain score a crucial unbeaten half-century in the first innings, but he also played a vital role in Sreesanth’s success. The bowler repays his debt of gratitude.
“Dada came up to me and said, ‘Sree, I know you are finding it difficult to bowl to left-handers. I don’t mind coming and batting (at the nets) and helping you out’. Dada was so keen and thanks to him… He really helped me at the nets. He used to go early to the practice sessions at Potchefstroom and I bowled a lot to Dada, Sachin paaji (Tendulkar), Rahul bhai (Dravid), Viru bhai (Virender Sehwag) and (VVS) Laxman. I think bowling to them made me a much better bowler.”
Among Sreesanth’s five wickets in the first innings, Graeme Smith was a lefty. Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock were his other scalps. It was his maiden five-for in Test cricket. South Africa folded up for 84 in their first innings and only three batsmen – Kallis, Ashwell Prince and Nel reached double figures.
It was Sreesanth’s coming-of-age performance. He dismissed Smith, Amla, and Kallis in the second innings as well.
Sreesanth, though, refuses to revel in any self-serving recollections.
“Dada played a very big role. Zaheer Khan and even VRV Singh also scored some very important runs in the second innings, which really helped. Anil Kumble bowled some excellent spells.”
All said and done, Sreesanth enjoyed the added responsibility that his skipper and coach, Dravid and Chappell, wanted him to shoulder.
“At the team meeting on match eve, they told me, ‘Sree, it’s high time you start winning matches. You did that in the West Indies with Munaf Patel and company, so you can do it’. I’m really thankful to Greg Chappell and Rahul bhai. They really pushed me and made me believe in my abilities.”
Chappell’s ‘culture’ made a difference
TA Sekhar was Sreesanth’s mentor at the MRF Pace Foundation. For someone who started as a leg-spinner, a lot of modifications, action-wise, were needed when Sreesanth switched to fast bowling. Sekhar was always there, ready to walk the extra mile for the youngster and a bond was formed.
“His (Sekhar’s) advice before the Test was to keep it simple. ‘The most important thing is to have belief. If the pitch is going to help you, that doesn’t mean you try too hard. You got to keep it very simple and very boring’. That’s what Sekhar sir told me.”
Something similar came from Chappell, who compared Sreesanth with a Ferrari, running on high-octane fuel. ‘Middle stump line, trying to hit off stump. That’s all you have to do throughout the day’.
Chappell’s demand from his fast bowler was simple and clear-cut. The two developed a fine rapport. Honing his skills under Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation had helped Sreesanth get acquainted with the Australian school of coaching. The boy from Kothamangalam, Kerala, in fact, embraced it. Little wonder then that he fell for Chappell’s coaching style.
“He (Chappell) played a huge role. Not just me, even Dhoni bhai, (Suresh) Raina, Irfan (Pathan), Ishant (Sharma) also. A lot of people won’t speak about it, but in my case, I can say he helped me a lot. He taught me to eat right, sleep right… And it was easy for me, for I was shaped up by the Australian cricket culture. The Australian way of coaching is somewhat different. A lot of people don’t understand that. But I was fortunate that I came from the MRF Pace Foundation and I could manage and adjust. It’s about giving your very best and enjoying the process without worrying about the results. Greg Chappell was very strict and treated every individual the same way and never did the worshipping part.”
After winning the first Test, India lost the next two to concede the series. But Sreesanth had another eight-wicket haul in the second Test at Durban. And it was still a relatively happy dressing room then. Discords started to surface from early 2007, and reached the tipping point after the World Cup debacle.
“Maybe, he (Chappell) was overconfident that he would win the World Cup with that Indian team. We had won 17 ODIs in a row (while chasing). Even in the first warm-up game (before the World Cup proper), we got the West Indies all out for a very low score. So when we played against Bangladesh, very few saw Tamim Iqbal coming and crushing us. At the same time, I think there were far too many experiments and everybody in the dressing room had been speaking about its negative side.”
Sreesanth’s next South Africa tour was in 2010-11, when India managed to draw the three-Test series 1-1. A few months down the line, he went on to win the World Cup. Then, the Ferrari crashed.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines