The decision of the Kerala High Court directing the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to revoke the life ban imposed on S. Sreesanth has paved the way for the return of this talented fast bowler to cricket field after a gap of four years. The Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) has written to the BCCI seeking immediate revocation of the ban and one hopes that the latter does not stand on ego and false prestige and abides by the direction of the High Court without any delay. If that happens one would be able to see Sreesanth back in action during the cricket season that commences in another month from now.
At this juncture it is only natural to analyze what made this speedster such a special commodity in Indian cricket. His international career till date has been relatively short; between 2005 and 2011, he played 27 Tests and 53 One-Day Internationals and 10 T20 Internationals picking up 87, 75 and 7 wickets in that order in each format. More than the number of wickets taken it was his attacking style of bowling and aggressive attitude that made him a formidable opponent on the field. He belonged to the rare breed of match-winning fast bowlers, of whose likes India have not been blessed with, in large numbers. In addition, he was also one of those cricketers who left behind an imprint of his own on Indian cricket. Two instances come to one’s mind which would reveal the talent he possessed and the impact that Sreesanth made on Indian cricket.
The first instant took place during the first Test against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2006. During one of the tour matches, Sreesanth had stared at a batsman from opposing side, in the same manner fast bowlers do all over the world. However, this raised the hackles of Makhaya Ntini, the South African fast bowler who said that Sreesanth would be shown his place when he played in the Tests. This was typical of the intimidatory tactics adopted by teams like Australia and South Africa to create fear in the minds of Indian batsmen about physical injury, when India toured those countries. This intention was to convey the message that Indian batsmen would risk facing fast short pitched bowling if their bowlers did not behave!
When the Test series started, India could score only 245 runs in their first innings of the opening Test. But they hit back strongly to dismiss South Africa for a mere 84, with Sreesanth taking 5 wickets for 40 runs. Bowling with tremendous control and using the conditions to his advantage, he put on display a superb exhibition of seam and swing bowling to run through the South African top order. He did not hesitate either to employ the bouncer or to indulge in a bit of sledging to unsettle the South African batsmen.
When Sreesanth walked out to bat in the second innings it was obvious that the South African speedsters would target him. He was met in the middle by Andre Nel, a cocky fast bowler, with whom some words were exchanged. Nel steamed in and let go one which pitched just short of good length. Sreesanth placed one firm foot forward and gave the ball a mighty whack which took it beyond the ropes for a six! As the ball landed outside the ropes, Sreesanth did a little war dance in front of Nel to rub it in truly!
To my mind, this would remain a defining moment in Indian cricket. Till then India had remained a side that could be easily intimidated and bullied by fast bowlers as we lacked genuine speedsters who could give it back and our batsmen were brought up on slow wickets with little exposure to facing quality pace bowling. An incident that took place in the Indian dressing room at Chennai in 1979 is revealing in this regard.
In the fourth Test of the series against the West Indies, India had bowled the visitors out for 228. Kapil Dev, then playing in only his second series, had extracted pace and bounce and bowled brilliantly to take 4 for 38. He had, in his enthusiasm also bowled lots of bouncers, some of them to the West Indian lower order batsmen. When the Indian team got back to the pavilion after West Indies finished their first innings, Kapil expected to be congratulated by his teammates. Instead he was showered with a volley of abuse by opener Chetan Chauhan for bowling short-pitched stuff against the West Indian batsmen. “We have to face the ire of West Indies fast bowlers for your actions”, Chauhan told Kapil even as others looked on in silence. Kapil has written in his autobiography that he felt completely let down as none of the other players either spoke a word in his support nor asked Chauhan to keep quiet. A shocked Kapil could only mumble an apology and slink away.
Those words of Chauhan reflected the mindset of Indian players of his generation. Though Chauhan and his teammates in the national side were gutsy batsman, they followed the prevailing wisdom that sides possessing fast bowlers should never be provoked by words or deeds on or off the cricket field. Indian players of those times had little opportunities to play against fast bowlers in domestic cricket and they knew that their squad did not have any players who could match the pace of speedsters of the West Indies, Australia or even England. Hence they thought that the best strategy was not to offend their opponents in any manner lest they unleash a barrage of bouncers or beamers. This approach, bordering on timidity, characterized Indian sides of that era and made them a less formidable set of opponents on the field.
The transition from Chauhan of 1978 to Sreesanth of 2006 was a significant one. Sreesanth’s gestures after hitting a six showed that the national side that he was part of could no longer be intimidated by fast bowlers. The batsmen in the side possessed the technical skills to tackle such stuff and they also had bowlers who could retaliate in equal measure. It was this spirit demonstrated by Sreesanth that won India the ICC T20 Trophy in 2007 and the ICC World Cup in 2011 besides a number of other tournaments and also took them to the top of Test rankings.
The next instance occurred at Durban during the second Test of the series against South Africa in December, 2010. Set to score 303 in the fourth innings for a win, South African openers started in a whirlwind fashion reaching 50 in no time. At this juncture Sreesanth was introduced into the attack and he started troubling Proteas captain Graeme Smith. Realizing that Sreesanth was bowling brilliantly, Smith gave him “a bit of lip” to upset him. Never one to back off from a verbal duel Sreesanth returned what he got with compliments, prompting Smith to complain to the umpires. It appeared that the South African strategy of getting Sreesanth to lose his rhythm through this tactic might succeed but the bowler wisely chose to walk back to the top of his run up, thus avoiding an escalation of the confrontation. In the very next over Sreesanth induced Smith to try to pull a delivery that was not short enough and the resultant top edge was held by M.S. Dhoni behind the stumps. As he walked back to the pavilion, Smith would have realized that he had lost not just the battle on the field but the one in the mind as well.
Sreesanth had got into splendid rhythm by then and he followed up with the wickets of Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis. The ball that dismissed Kallis on the fourth morning was a real “snorter” that reared up from the good length spot and hit the glove even as the batsman went into a reverse “C” position to avoid it. The resultant lobbed catch was held by Virender Sehwag at gully. After these dismissals South Africa were never in the game and they lost the match by 87 runs.
The instances cited above would reveal that Sreesanth was not a mere match-winner with the ball; instead, he was player who could best his opponents in battles of the mind, which are of equal importance, or more, in the international arena. Such players require skillful handling for realizing their potential as well as for harnessing their energies. Looking back, one finds that Sreesanth could perform at his best when the side was managed by Greg Chappell and Gary Kirsten, two coaches who understood his talent and skills and guided him with a paternal hand around his shoulder. Only these two could display the tact and acumen required for handling such prodigiously talented and fiercely aggressive, yet mercurial players who could unsettle opponents in their mind even while flooring them on the ground. The general tendency has been to regard such players as “problem cases” who need more disciplining and treat them accordingly, little realizing that while doing so extraordinary talent gets destroyed. The case of Sadanand Viswanath, one of the best wicketkeepers produced by India, springs to mind as one whose career was cut short because of such ham-handed approach. Sreesanth was only marginally luckier than Viswanath.
Sreesanth was forced to stay away from the game since 2013 due to the case booked against him and the consequent ban imposed on him by the BCCI. He turned 34 last February, which means that his best years as a fast bowler are behind him. It would be an uphill task for him for prove that he retains his skills and standards of fitness to play the game at the highest level. However, hopes die hard and many a cricket lover would be observing his return to the game closely with a prayer on their lips that Sreesanth is not denied what is due to him on the cricket field. Talents like him come rarely and it would be nothing short of a sin to allow them to go waste.
All the best Sreesanth for a successful comeback!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)