Sreesanth shuts out his former self
For the better part of the first day at Trent Bridge, Zaheer Khan went from being the most valuable member of the Indian team to a blip on the horizon. The thick, constant cloud that loomed over Trent Bridge as heavily as the news about his hamstring injury had all week, gave India's bowling attack the necessary cover it needed to make its presence felt. What is more, like in the British film noir classic, The Third Man turned up at Nottingham and suddenly India found their place in the series.
After the miserable defeat at Lords, India genuinely believed that the balance had tipped towards England, only because they did not have a third fully-fit member of their pace attack. Old scorebooks can't ever be rewritten but Friday's play featured a live demonstration of that argument - in India's incisive, switched-on Third Man, the indefatigable Sreesanth.
On a day meant for mealy, contained medium-pace swing and seam, given an extra blessing by the skies above and a track below that would make Britain's senior citizens lace up their boots and line up to bowl, India didn't get much wrong. There is much that Sreesanth can and has got wrong in his corkscrew of an international career so far. When he gets it right though, he swings it on par with the best bowlers of his generation.
Sreesanth wasn't the lone performer among India's bowlers today. England's wickets were shared three each by the medium pacers, Praveen Kumar being sharp and parsimonious and the newly-shorn Ishant Sharma spiky and probing. Yet it was the smoothness and the simplicity of Sreesanth's return after a gap of seven months that gave India's bowling the sharp teeth it needs. At the start of the 11th over, Sreesanth stood at the top of his run and from there would have seen what lay before him. The assistance of the kind rarely found by Indian bowlers during their careers and team-mates who had spent an hour making the ball whistle past and catcall the batsmen. It was all on his side. If Sreesanth had an opponent to be beaten down from there, it was the petulant, shoulder-barging showboater that turned up in Trent Bridge four years ago.
Sreesanth locked that door of that memory, threw away the key and chose to find control over line and shape. Off the fourth ball of his first over, Jonathan Trott, England's most in-form batsman, nicked one of his patented outswingers and Sreesanth was on his way. Trent Bridge, whose cheery, boisterous crowd had booed him as he fielded, saw a man who had pared his cricket down to just his skill. The reasons as to why that happened will always be a mystery; maybe it was out of respect for the bowler whose place Sreesanth had taken or just the awareness that opportunities of this kind are rare and precious. So, Sreesanth bowled with menace but not offence, he was aggressive, but measured in his use of this aggression.
Just after the World Cup, India's bowling coach Eric Simons had spoken at length to ESPNcricinfo, about the Indian bowling and said of Sreesanth, "If Sreesanth had grown up in England, he would be unbelieveable in terms of his ability to swing the ball." A popular theory about him is that had he regularly played under Sourav Ganguly, he would have had a far more uninterrupted career and at least 50 more Test wickets.
The day before the game Dhoni, who brought him on as first change as an insurance policy against a cataclysmic opening spell, said yesterday it "seemed" Sreesanth had changed. "The more he has played the better he has become." The wicket of Kevin Pietersen came at the end of an eye-to-eye tussle over three overs in which Sreesanth took punishment, soaked in two imperious boundaries off short balls and finally pocketed him with a juicy one leaving off stump. He signed off his second spell by dislodging Matt Prior, who was first drawn out and then opened up nicking the ball to Dravid at first slip.
"He's the sort of bowler who would like to bowl at Trent Bridge every week," Stuart Broad said later, indicating that England's bowlers would try to emulate the tightness of Sreesanth and the India's medium-pacers. Ideally, Sreesanth himself said at the media conference, he would like to take Trent Bridge track wherever he goes. He was both courteous and cheeky, saying, "Normally we only see batsmen-friendly wickets and this was a bowler's wicket, why not?" He then was generous in his approval of the ninth-wicket partnership of 73 between Broad and Graeme Swann, saying it had made the game competitive.
Coaching Sreesanth, Simons had said, was about balance. "You have got to be careful to not curb the fire... if I was a football coach and I took the fire out of Wayne Rooney's belly, would I make him a worse footballer? You've got to keep the uniqueness of the person, but help him with how to practice better and understand himself better." In recent months, Sreesanth believes that the key to his bowling has been him understanding his art after a brief stint with Allan Donald at Warwickshire (and no doubt time spent in frequent wilderness). "Where to bowl, how to bowl, what to bowl, the stance of the batsman... I just learned little things. When you are fit and raring to go, all you think is run in and bowl fast."
He ran in today but rather than shatter the speed gun, he bowled fiercely. Before he wandered out of the squash court where reporters had tried to get him to explain just why and how he had managed to be so quiet over the last six months, he couldn't resist a Sreesanth-ism. He frowned, looked into the distance for a second, sifted through his memory and found a new aphorism he could well stick into his Twitter account. He said, "Silence is the speech of the spiritual seeker." England must think they would rather have the loony brat back. India have their fingers crossed.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo