A feisty 22-year-old sledged India’s batting bulwark Sachin Tendulkar on the pitch, and the nation watched on in shock — this is how Kerala pacer Shanthakumaran Sreesanth first made his mark on Indian cricket. The boisterous act and the ‘Man of the Series’ title in the 2005 Challenger Trophy launched Sreesanth into his international career, one he probably didn’t know waited for him with bitter surprises.
Sreesanth’s impressive performance in the domestic tournament earned him a spot in the Indian team for a home one-day international series against Sri Lanka.
Today, as the former cricketer begins the proverbial second innings of his life with a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket for the Kerala elections, we look at how the once-incautious pacer went on to chose the path of diplomacy and tact.
1) Where it all began
The Challenger Trophy showed Sreesanth’s true grit. It showed how an Indian player could get under the skin of world-class players by coupling sharp bowling with stinging sledging. However, these were also the first signs of trouble in his career, landing him meetings with match referees for disciplinary hearings and match fines.
The right-arm paceman made his Test debut in 2006 against England and provided India some much-needed edge in their bowling attack.
Wisden wrote about him in 2007: “Competition for places in the Indian fast-bowling pantheon has never been particularly fierce, but Sreesanth showed enough promise to suggest that, one day, he might take a seat alongside Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath.”
Everyone had high hopes for the Kerala lad, but he was already knocking on trouble’s door.
2) First brush with the code of the Gentleman’s Game
During India’s tour of South Africa in 2006, Sreesanth was fined 30% of his match fee for “showing a lack of respect” towards batsman Hashim Amla after his dismissal. In 2007, during India’s tour of England, he was fined half of his match fee after shoving his shoulder into opposition captain Michael Vaughan. His beamer delivered to Kevin Pietersen in the same series prompted many to question his aggressive tactics. India still had confidence in the youngster, with hopes of his game maturing as he played more cricket.
3) Indian cricket’s disco dancer
Sreesanth was also involved in an a face-off in 2006 with South African cricketer André Nel but this time he, had a bat in his hand. Nel bowled several body-line fast deliveries at the Indian cricketer and gestured at his chest. Sreesanth eventually charged out of his crease and hit one into the stands. He then whirled the bat and began a fervent dance on the pitch to mock the bowler.
He later spoke of the incident: “As soon as I walked into bat, Nel said ‘I can smell blood. You do not have the guts.’ Showing his emblem on the shirt, Nel said ‘I am playing for this. You are a scared fellow, rabbit. I will get you next ball’.” Sreesanth was later praised for his dancing skills off the cricket field, too (See No. 8)
4) Sledging the ‘sledgers’
Sreesanth was the talk of the cricketing world again in 2007, when India were touring Australia. He got into a confrontation with Andrew Symonds after seemingly clapping in the all-rounder’s face upon his dismissal. He was also alleged to have hurled insults at other players during the rest of the series. Sreesanth later denied he had tried to mock Symonds.
In the 2008 edition of the Indian Premier League, Sreesanth was reportedly slapped by spin bowler Harbhajan Singh. He later called his former India teammate a “backstabbing person”.
Sreesanth, playing for Kings XI Punjab at that time, and Singh, competing for the Mumbai Indians, faced off after the game, an incident that left the pacer in tears. Harbhajan was banned for the rest of the tournament, while Sreesanth was let off with a warning after disciplinary proceedings.
The pacer, however, said Singh had elbowed him, but never slapped him. “I want the world to c it..Whn I went to shake hands after the match..he had lost it..he had already planned to hit me(elbow me)all his anger (sic)” Sreesanth tweeted in 2013.
6) It all goes south
After struggling to calibrate his aggression on the field, Sreesanth and two other players were arrested in 2013 on suspicion of spot-fixing in the IPL tournament. Police charged the three with taking money to concede a pre-determined number of runs in three different IPL matches.
A court ordered his release on bail the same year. All three bowlers of the Rajasthan Royals team denied any wrongdoing. They were, however, suspended by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the IPL team. The Delhi Police tried to keep the players in jail, alleging they had a “nexus” with an “organised crime syndicate”.
Sreesanth was later banned for life on spot-fixing charges. His first innings in life had just come to a grinding halt.
7) On a wing and a prayer
Before being banned from international cricket over charges of spot-fixing, out-on-bail Sreesanth sought a divine intervention in 2015. Amid a horde of shutterbugs, he prayed at the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple, insisting he had not done anything wrong.
“I haven’t done anything wrong to get accused in the spot fixing case. Some minor lapses might have happened on my side in the past. But I am totally innocent in the present case. I am confident of proving that,” he told reporters after offering prayers at the hill shrine.
8) Dancing back into focus
The once-aggressive pacer was soon learning how to channel his energy into a performing art. He participated in a dance reality show, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, and said he planned to move from Kerala to Mumbai for to give his passion a shot.
The infamous aggression followed him here, too. The former cricketer, 31 years old at this stage, had an argument with celebrity judges Madhuri Dixit, Remo D’Souza and Karan Johar after they pointed out flaws in his dance performance.
Sreesanth later said his outburst was because of a back injury and a bad performance which saw him being eliminated from the show.
9) Ball in his court
A New Delhi court in 2015 cleared the bowler of spot-fixing. The teary-eyed player welcomed the verdict, hugging family members and friends. “It’s a huge relief. I have nothing against anybody. God willing I will return to cricket,” Sreesanth told NDTV.
The “return”, however, was not to be, and Sreesanth soon walked on to a different field for the second innings of his professional life.
10) Politics, meet Sreesanth
After having played 27 Tests and 53 ODIs dogged by injuries and disciplinary issues, Sreesanth announced on Friday he was ready to contest in the assembly elections in his home state.
The BJP fielded the former India pacer from Thiruvananthapuram, as it declared 50 other candidates for the elections.
Talking to reporters at a media briefing, 33-year-old Sreesanth said his name had been cleared in the spot-fixing case and he was not worried about any opposition attacking him regarding the controversy. While a ban by the BCCI on Sreesanth stays, it looks like there is no stopping him for now in the field of politics.
PS: While Sreesanth sledged Tendulkar in 2005 and the world made tales out of it, the ‘Master Blaster’ hit the Kerala pacer out of the park on the next ball in an indication that the pacer needed to route his aggression in the right direction. Sreesanth could not do it in time to benefit his cricket career, but in the second innings of his life, the unsaid advice of Tendulkar’s bat can go a long way for the Kerala rabble-rouser.