Perhaps it’s best to start with a cricketing story. The man has been shamed (interred in Tihar Jail post IPL spot-fixing charges), mocked (forget the fans even his team-mates would call him “actor”), praised (for his whistling seam), sympathised (depression post-jail that triggered suicidal thoughts), marvelled (the comeback as an actor), wowed at (a most remarkable cricketing comeback after 8 years), and sighed at (the unrealised potential).
For a man who has no false modesty about his talent, and can expound theories on how he can dismiss Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Steve Smith, Rahul Dravid (in Chennai club cricket) he can charm you with his self-deprecatory tone as well. And he is one of the better storytellers among cricketers. Here is him talking about bowling to Brian Lara.
“You know the Antigua ground na? The church beyond the midwicket boundary?”
Once the ecclesiastical setting is established, he starts with a chuckle. “Three balls, away, away, away, he played and missed. Then he left two balls in a row. Mohammad Kaif is at short-leg and I go, ‘Kaif bhai, is this Brian Lara? The King Charles Lara? Really? So Lara looked at me, ‘what the f***, what the f***?’
And I go, ‘no no, f*****g later, I f*** you now!” Next ball, just short daala, my strength, (ball) coming in, which Adam Gilchrist got out to in 2007 T20 world cup na? Similar ball. He flicked it, not even a pull. Antigua ground is small. Only 65-70 yards midwicket. Then there are six rows. Then the pavilion. Then there is a road (he gestures it was a fairly decent-sized road). After that there is a church.” Peals of laughter. “That’s where the ball landed. After hitting, he stood there and looked at me. And I was like, ‘Good shot’. He is somebody who would knock on your door at two o’clock in the night and say “let’s go.”
Presumably, the nocturnal visits weren’t to retrieve that ball from that church.
The seam. The grimace at release. The headband. The misbehaving hair. The desire to revel in the post-delivery moment at the batsman’s discomfiture. A kid’s urge, that. At times, it would seem that desire almost overwhelmed the required discipline before the release of the ball; he can lose the plot as much as stun with something spectacular. The inconsistency wasn’t surprising.
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But when on song, he was a rockstar. One of the very best India has seen. The clips of T20 world cup games against Australia and the spectacular game-turning over where he kept Misbah-ul-Haq quiet in the final has been twittered in the last couple of days.
Others might remember the wicked bouncer at Kallis, who for an Instagram moment seemed would sprawl flat on his back as if he were knocked out by a Mike Tyson punch. Over the years, there have been plenty of vicious leg cutters that have been too good to get an edge. At his best, he was one of the best. Not a line, you can say about all good bowlers.
If the best-of-Sreesanth clips are shown to somebody from the future, they might well query, ‘400 Test wickets sort of a bowler?’ As things stand, he ended up with 87 wickets from 27 Tests. Even his first-class average is 35.92, without any 10-wicket haul in 74 games.
Here is the thing, though. Everyone who knows him, or even seen him on television and read about him in papers, knew that he needed a mentor.
His what-could-have-been phase, his unlived life is as much his fault as it’s of the cricketing ecosystem which was ill-equipped for someone like him. It was fine in dealing with alpha males or subservient cronies but didn’t know what to do with a Sreesanth.
As a young man his human awkwardness and emotional inadequacy triggered concerns. It was clear during his initial years at international cricket that he was a tormented soul who craved attention and was bewildered that he wasn’t liked as much as he dreamed he would be. Later, he began to feel victimised, emotionally alienated, and started to withdraw.
In a 2011 interview, beside a swimming pool in the West Indies, a young Ishant Sharma was talking about teammates with whom he liked to shoot the breeze. Unprompted, he talked of Sreesanth, who, he said, didn’t mingle much and with whom he rarely had a chat. “It’s not that he is a bad guy, but just someone I have never got to know.” Does he help you with bowling tips or something? “No. I rarely interact with him.”
So does he have any friends?
“Akele hi rehta hai woh, apne duniya mey (He stays alone, in his own world).”
The stories that one usually heard about Sreesanth then were never malicious. He spent his early days at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai and his colleagues would tell a story of a boy mischievously eager to please his seniors.
When coaches, like TA Sekhar, would come into the room at the end of a training session, Sreesanth, who would be resting, would apparently jump up and, in a player’s words, “act” as if he is doing some training ritual.
“We used to call him an actor,” says the player.
He knows that. Last year, during a fascinating outpouring about those days, he suddenly perked up, “Didn’t they always call me an actor?” And laughed.
Back then, he reminded one of a kid who would visit your house and, without much prompting, break into a song-and-dance routine in an over-eager attempt to show off his talent, and soak up the elders’ adulation. That kid can be occasionally annoying to other kids but it was difficult to see any malice.
Some don’t mind anonymity but he wasn’t one of them. He craved positive attention, but all he got was a shrug of indifference and back-chats of ridicule in the Indian cricketing fraternity.
One remembers summery afternoons at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore where he was undergoing rehab. A decade or so back. A casual chat would often turn bitter. “Not one cricketer, my teammates, has called me or messaged me about how I am doing. No one really cares. I always enquired about other teammates when they were in trouble.”
During his playing career, he considered Ajay Shankar, the then national sports editor of this newspaper, as a good friend. Much later, writing for ESPNCricinfo on the day after Sreesanth’s arrest in the alleged spot-fixing case, Shankar recalled: “I soon discovered that Sreesanth was an extremely lonely cricketer, with hardly anyone in the Indian team he could call a friend… His constant refrain was: Nobody in the team likes me, I have no godfathers to back me … He fumed that some of his team-mates from north India were spreading stories about him, maligning him. In fact, on the 2006-07 tour of South Africa, the crowning moment of his fledgling career, he was more concerned about a story allegedly being spread by some of his team-mates: that he always carried a knife about with him!”
Without friends, a sense of victimhood understandably seeped in. Emotionally vulnerable already, he had no clue how to handle the perception battles. Hence, over the years, he has issued numerous times to the media, versions of the same basic quote, “I am a changed man now”. And when the blues took over, he would flip, ‘why should I change? What wrong did I do?’.
Of all the Indian captains that he played under, it was probably Rahul Dravid who tried the most to get the best out of him. And it was cruelly ironic that it was under Dravid’s watch that Sreesanth was alleged to have crossed the line in IPL in 2013. He has denied it of course.
That story also details his torturous time inside prison. The always-on bulb in his cell that gave him insomnia and later nightmares, the snide remarks from criminals, the fear for his life and sanity, and the journey back to light.
“Sometimes I think it’s good that all this has happened as I would have probably retired and settled in Dubai or the UK. There would not have been any major self-transformation … I can proudly say that I can now control my subconscious mind and program it positively. Anyone who has lost in business, or is very down in life and having dark thoughts, I want to tell them never ever doubt your ability. I want them to think if Sreesanth can come back from hell, then I also can. I want to be an inspiration … Thank god now, my daughter and son can watch me play cricket next year. I don’t want them to google my name and see all this fixing,” he said then. That remarkable act, he has achieved. His family saw him hugging the pitch in teary gratitude after he took his first wicket after coming back.
“So many good things are happening – from music, movies, books, web-series, cricket, and politics,” he says. The future is calling; the dark past, hopefully, remains mute.