It is dusk on Sunday in Kochi. A few hundred lamps are aflame at the famous Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple, casting a divine, amber glow around. Men in mundus and women with flowers in their hair clang bells, burn incense, offer garlands and coconut and pray to the deity. Once in a while you hear the explosion of vazhipad, a kind of firework supposed to bring good luck.
Among the throngs of worshippers at the shrine are Shanthakumaran and Savitri Devi, the father and mother of S. Sreesanth. The dramatic fast bowler will play his first international match in his hometown (rain permitting) since India’s World Twenty20 triumph when they meet Australia on Tuesday. But his parents are not obsessing over it. For the relaxed, god-fearing couple, the regular temple trip is more important.
“It’s all the grace of God,” Shanthakumaran says in the course of almost every answer as we meet in one of the offices of Chottanikkara. Asked what he felt when Sreesanth held on to Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq scoop in the World Twenty20 final, he said, “God put that ball in Sree’s hands. Pakistan needed six runs off four balls. They could have easily won. But that’s not how it happened.”
Sreesanth was to accompany his family to the temple. But he was chief guest at a function and couldn’t make it. Asked if he was as devout as them, Shanthakumaran says, “Yes. He is a pious man…off the field.” Shanthakumaran, who retired from the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) as branch manager in 1996, exudes humility but not naivete. You feel he knows how the world works and if need be, can shift to a sterner mode. Savitri Devi, a retired district treasury officer of the state government, simply looks blissed out. She has a permanent smile on her cherubic face. Sreesanth resembles her more than his father. Not for Shanthakumaran and Savitri Devi the grouchiness of old age. They laugh at each other’s jokes.
“We are optimists,” Shanthakumaran says. Perhaps that is why Sreesanth is uninhibited.
The cricketer is not the first celebrity in his home. His brother-in-law Madhu Balakrishnan is a famous playback singer. But Sreesanth enjoys another level of fame altogether, particularly after the World Twenty20 win. That causes the family a small problem. “The rare occasion that he is at home, there are always friends and well-wishers around,” says Shanthakumaran. “We get very few opportunities to talk on a parent-son level.” But they understand that travel is a part of his job now.
While Sreesanth jets around the cricketing world making those theatrical appeals to the umpire, his people back home make pleas to the great umpire up above. Said Dr Joshi Dev, his neighbour who had accompanied his parents to the temple on Sunday, “We had a big puja here before the World Cup in the West Indies. India did not even reach the second round then. But our prayers have been answered now.” Not just theirs. Also the Kerala Cricket Association’s. “If a 100 youngsters come for district selection trials now, 75 want to become fast bowlers,” says P Sivakumar, Sreesanth’s former coach and mentor and a state selector. “His impact has been tremendous.”
Sivakumar doesn’t mind his ward’s aggression, though he says his shouldering Michael Vaughan during the England series was out of line.
“I called him after that and told him that deliberate body contact was not acceptable,” said Sivakumar. “But otherwise it’s good that he’s aggressive. I think it’s the first time India is seeing an aggressive fast bowler.” Life has been good to Sreesanth. In just two years since making his India debut (against Sri Lanka in Nagpur), he has earned fame, wealth and has been part of a landmark victory campaign. Now only if the Almighty who sent Misbah’s shot into his hands ensures that his deliveries don’t stray and India don’t concede too many extras.