Hands on your heart, you didn’t do anything wrong? You weren’t involved in fixing?’ At one point in our conversation, three days after the ombudsman of the Indian cricket board passed an order that he can play representative cricket from next September and a few months after Supreme Court had set aside his life ban for his alleged role in spot fixing in the Indian Premier League, Sreesanth is asked that direct question.
“I swear on my kids, I swear on my dad, who is ill but surviving for the last five-and-half years just to watch a match, I swear on my mom, who had her left leg amputated just one-and-half months back and who hasn’t given up hope of watching me in a match — I haven’t done it (spot-fixed in a game). I will never do it even for 100 crores.”
His life had toppled out of control in 2013 and the lowest point of police interrogation came, he says, when he found himself lying down in the “bloody washroom of the Delhi cell”. “People are looking down at you as if you would run away. I was lying there, trying to figure out what wrong I had done. Mentally, physically, emotionally drained. No sleep. I might have nodded off at 2 in the night, they would wake me up at 2.30 and ask question. Why did you do this, who is this guy, what is happening there…”
More trouble awaited at Tihar jail, where he was subsequently interred for 26 days. “There was this guy — murderer and rapist — who used to abuse me a lot. Every other word was an abuse. I was scared of him. I soon realised, I had to do something about it. I started to speak to him and I remember after a few days he said, “Tere me to dum nahi, teri to fatt gayi… Saath rehna, tero ko karne ke liye bohot log hai. (You are scared. Stay with me. Lots of people want to target you).”
A 500-watt bulb burnt through the night in his cell. It would haunt him in the years to come when he slipped into “depression and it took me a lot of time, and therapy to recover.” Finally, it was music, as suggested by his musician brother-in-law, he says, that liberated him from his mental jail.
The depression lasted for six-and-half months, he says after he came out of Tihar jail. “I would break down for no reason. I used to get seizures for 6-7 weeks. I couldn’t sleep as in Tihar they had that bulb that they wouldn’t switch off.”
Suicidal thoughts tailed him. “I came close, very close, to death four-five times but I pulled myself back. Some power, even bigger than god, like something that made god maybe,” he says. “I have grown a lot more philosophical in the last six years.” Therapists did their bit. “No shame in saying that but more than anything I think it was music that got me out of it.”
The overriding thought in Tihar wasn’t “why me?” but “how did this happen”. “I kept on saying to myself there is a reason for all this. Karma. Did I do something as a kid? Or in my relationships. My grandmother would say never be bad to women, it will backfire. Karma. But I couldn’t get any answer.”
In the jail, he wrote a song about the light-bulb, titled ‘Roshni’ and later, set it to a tune. One on Shiva – “I am a Shiv-Bhakt” — which will soon be sung by his brother-in-law. “Lyrics poured out of me, and I would sit in a small studio room, creating music.”
All of a sudden, the dark sombre mood evaporates from the café at a Juhu hotel. In a blink, he starts talking about how many top stars in Southern film world want his one particular composition for their own movies. Titled, “Anbule azhagey (Dear beautiful). “I have refused so far. They all want it.” What’s he holding it for? “Well, I didn’t want to talk about it but it’s for a web-series on my life. I am working something with Mahesh Bhatt sir and Pooja (Bhatt) di. My life story can’t be fit in a biopic, it will be across seasons, don’t you think?”
Sreesanth is an actor these days. “Didn’t many of my team-mates always use to say that I was an actor?!” he laughs. “I think you need to be a good actor to get by in life. I am not talking about faking it. I mean not showing your vulnerability. I hate sympathy; I don’t want it in my life anymore. I don’t want to show it to anyone that I am down. That’s what I mean by acting.” His father showed him a glimpse of it on the day he came back from Tihar. “My mother broke down, my father, who is more emotional actually, didn’t. He kept smiling. I realised he didn’t want to show me how bad he had felt. I also didn’t cry. I went back to my room and I broke down.”
It was his relationship with a friend Jiju Janardhanan, a club-level cricketer, that did him in, he says. Before the May 9th match against Kings XI Punjab, that turned his life upside down, the Delhi police were listening into a conversation with a bookie Chandresh Patel aka Chand with Jiju Janardhanan.
According to the transcripts released by police after the arrest, Chand asks, “What will be the signal?” Jiju replies, “I have told him. He will not do anything which is unusual. He will tuck in a towel before bowling the second over.” And Chand replies, “Brother, please advise him to give us sometime before starting the over as we can start our booking.”
In Sreesanth’s telling, Jiju was doing his own thing. “I remember a commando in the Delhi police told me that Jiju is laughing. That he was crying first, now he is laughing. That he thought Sreesanth will never get to know that he was doing this behind the back. Anyways, he (Sreesanth) gives runs (my economy rate is 8 or something in IPL), and in some case, if the runs don’t match, I would say it didn’t work out and make runs on other times. Let any bookie claim that he has been fixing with Sreesanth. Let one person say that…”
Since then, he has cut out “characters like him from my life”. “Why would I speak to him? I knew this road was full of gutter, Why would I take my Ferrari there no. I just cut out him and people like him. If he wasn’t caught, years later he would have probably boasted how ch***a banaya Sree ko.”
The fix was for 14 runs and he gave away 13. But just five runs had come from the first four balls.
“That over to Adam Gilchrist, I gave five runs from four balls. Even a blind man following cricket commentary will wonder how he is going to give so many runs in the next two balls! Then they said I tried to bowl a wide and no ball in the next two balls. One media even showed a video from different match to suggest that the last ball was a no ball. A footage from a different game, how low they can fall?”
In another transcript, this time between Jiju Janardhanan and another bookie Amit Singh after the May 9th match, Amit complains that they were “minus” because only 13 runs came and not 14.
“Minus mein hai yaar, aapko pehle saaf bataya tha ki 12 bhi minus hai, 14 plus hi hogi toh faayda hai. Yeh bata, tune Sree ko bataya tha kya? (It’s in minus, I had told you clearly that even if it’s 12, it would be minus. Only 14 plus would be profitable. Did you tell Sreesanth?)”.” Amit says. Jiju replies, “Sab kuch bataya tha as fixed. Everything was clear, yaar. (Told him everything as fixed.”
And then Amit asks, “Why didn’t he bowl a wide ball?” Jiju says Sreesanth tried it last ball. “Usne last mein daala, yaar usne wide ball par chowka maara (He tried last ball but Gilchrist hit it for a four)”.
You nudge Sreesanth about the towel. “You should ask Kumar Dharmasena (the umpire) about it. I asked him should I keep the towel this over or the next. It was more about superstitious reasons. There are colleagues who I hear have said that I got that towel from the hotel! Everybody knows that I have towel, or teeka (on forehead) now and then.
Humour springs up even here. “Luckily, thanks to lord Guruvayurappan, I didn’t bowl leg-spin in those two balls. Which is something I would have done as it was a dry wicket but luckily, I didn’t. What would have they said if I had?”
Then comes the counterattack. “Please explain in the same IPl, when RP Sigh bowled such a big no ball, not once but twice (in the same match, once to Dhoni and one to Ravindra Jadeja that led to a last-ball win for Chennai Super Kings), did they say anything about it?”
He brings up the episode when he was grilled by the Delhi police in “box-like rooms with an officer and two commandos standing, trying to scare me into a confession”. They showed him pictures and other evidence about several other cricketers who were suspected of being involved in fixing. Like those infamous 13 names in that sealed envelope to the apex court. “20-21 names in fact. They showed photo, video, of players and I was thinking ‘no way, not him, he won’t do it’.
“To those players who did it (fixing) and are still playing, having a smiley face, I just want to say, I am not you guys. I can take names easily with proof (as I was shown by police) but I won’t do it. That’s not me. It has taken seven years for me to get back my life. Some of them are still playing, some retired — not just in this country but across the word. I don’t think they are strong enough to handle what I went through… they are all just accused and I don’t want to drag them.”
That IPL hadn’t started well for Sreesanth. After a spat between Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, a newspaper had reported how it reminded of the slap-gate episode between Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth. “I tweeted a series of tweets. Call it immaturity but I posted stuff like how it wasn’t a slap, it was a back flip and that had I had hit him, I would have been banned for life… It didn’t go down well. The authorities wanted me banned. Rahul (Dravid) bhai called me to his room, and said, ‘Sree, stop all this. They want me to drop you. I am going to play you but you need to stop tweeting. They will ban you.’ I played that game and did well. But I was dropped for a few games.”
In Rajasthan Royals coach Paddy Upton’s telling, Sreesanth was so desperate to play that when he was dropped, he had abused him and Dravid, the captain. Upton seemed to suggest in his book that in hindsight, Sreesanth’s desperation was because he wanted to play to fix.
“Mr Upton, touch your heart and touch your kid’s heads, did I ever abuse you either during India team or in IPL? I want to ask the legend Rahul Dravid, someone whom I respect and love, when did I ever fight with him? When did I abuse with him the way Upton said in his book?”
“I requested Upton many times to let me play that game — only because of my history with CSK and because I wanted to defeat them. He made it out differently that I wanted to play as if for fixing. Everybody knows how much I hate CSK, I don’t have to say. People might say because of MS Dhoni or N Srinivasan sir or whatever but that’s not the truth; I just hate the yellow colour. I hated Australia for the same reason. Most importantly, I have done extremely well against CSK that’s why I wanted to play.”
“That allegation that I abused the two was the most disappointing. That was bigger than torture by police. That thing still hurts. Other players would talk about Upton, “Yeh kaun hai bey, Kirsten sab kuch karte hain (who is this guy, Kirsten does everything).’ Have I ever behaved like that with him? I really hope your book sells more because you seem so desperate.”
In fact, not just that IPL but that year hadn’t started well. That February, he was banned for two matches after an incident with Dinesh Karthik in a Subbiah Pillai Trophy match against Tamil Nadu before the Champions Trophy probables was announced.
“Karthik had complained that I was abusing N Srinivasan. DK was trying out some new technique by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Before facing every ball, he was doing these elaborate breathing rituals and taking a lot of time. I was at point, and told him, “Machan, very lucky da, you are in Tamil Nadu na… and he went, ‘sssshhh. I said, ‘what, ready avudua dei (get ready). Next time again same. So much time was being wasted and umpires weren’t doing anything. Next time I said, “Srinivasan is backing you, so you doing all this. Sachin Baby (the captain then) might get banned for slow over rate. I bowled leg-spin and got him out and as he walked out, I told him, ‘Breathe, breathe and go!’ We won. Why would I abuse Srinivasan sir, we both go a long way and connect through (our devotion) for Guruvayurappan. In 2009, when I was making my comeback, cricketers weren’t allowed to play in county but sir sent me. And I would abuse him?
“That evening Champions Trophy probables was announced and I wasn’t there. Only reason was that complaint. DK, if you are reading this, what you did to me and my family is unforgivable. Next year Kerala plays Tamil Nadu, you know what’s going to happen, god bless you.”
All this and more will be featured in Sreesanth’s autobiography, set to release next year he says. “Working with four publishers around the world”.
In July, 2015, Delhi’s Patiala House court dropped all charges, including the MCOCA against Sreesanth and other cricketers. The Supreme Court had earlier in the year set aside the life ban imposed by BCCI disciplinary committee and asked the Board ombudsman to reconsider the quantum of punishment. The ombudsman Justice DK Jain reduced the life ban to seven years in August this year, and Sreesanth will be able to return to cricket in September next year.
His future plans aren’t modest by any stretch. In 2024, he says he will stand in the elections as BJP candidate and defeat Congress’s Shashi Tharoor. “I am a huge fan of his as a person who had stood by me but I will defeat him in the elections in Thiruvananthapuram,” he says with a smile. “No doubt about it.” The future looks good — a web-series about his life, an autobiography, couple of movies that he is about to wrap up shooting and one final crack at cricket. “My mother and father will be there, my wife has been visualising the moment for a long time, so will be my children.”
“Sometimes I think it’s good all this has happened as I would have probably retired and settled in Dubai or UK. There would not have been any major self-transformation. Now I am in control and so many good things are happening – from music, movies, books, web-series, cricket, and politics. I was fortunate not just my wife (when I was in jail, she slept in kitchen as she didn’t want AC or any comforts), and parents but others supported me. Like the film fraternity. Thank god now, my four-year old daughter and two-year old son can watch me play cricket next year. I don’t want them to google my name and see all this fixing. She can see me playing with her own eyes next year.”
“In the last few years, I can proudly say that I can now control my subconscious mind and program it positively. Anyone who has lost in business, or 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.”
He then whips out his phone, shows a few recent bowling videos (a few stunning leg-cutters and in-swingers make one gasp, and he laughs) and then flicks to a Tik-Tok video, where he is mouthing a movie-line from the Tamil actor Surya. “Ethir parkale-ley? Naan thirumbi varuvenu, ethir parkale-ley? (Didn’t expect, right? You didn’t expect I would come back, right?).