Putting Kerala on the cricket map
On December 3, 2001, when he missed college to watch Tinu Yohannan make his Test debut at Mohali, in the process becoming the first Kerala player to play international cricket, little would S Sreesanth have imagined that three years later, he would stake his claim for a place in the Indian team at the same venue. Neither would too many people have imagined that a slightly built pace bowler from Kerala, a state more famous for its athletes and football stars, would end up as the Man of the Series in this season's Challenger Trophy.
If Yohannan put Quilon on the Indian cricket map, then Sreesanth has added Ernakulam to the list. Unlike Yohannan, though, whose physique was tailor-made for fast bowling, the bespectacled, baby-faced Sreesanth comes across like a student of mathematics. When he begins his run-up, the equation slightly changes. With a hustling, rhythmic run-up Sreesanth gathers his momentum, delivers with a side-on action, skids the ball through at disconcerting pace, and most importantly, swings it both ways. If you can hurry Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, you can hurry most. The short delivery was used judiciously, the yorker skillfully. He ended with seven wickets and could have had many more if not for some poor umpiring and bad fortune.
Until now Sreesanth was hardly anything more than an answer to a trivia question - who is the only Kerala bowler to have taken a Ranji Trophy hat-trick ? His rise, though, has been rapid, and since he plays for a weak side, unnoticed. Not too many bowlers get selected for the Duleep Trophy in their first season, like Sreesanth did in 2002-03 after snapping up 22 wickets in his first seven games. Playing for Plate B, he cranked up some surging pace and troubled experienced domestic stars like Wasim Jaffer and Hrishikesh Kanitkar.
New Zealand arrived in India at the start of his second season and the tour game at Rajkot provided him with a chance to prove his worth. He was overshadowed by Munaf Patel, who bowled with fire, but Sreesanth's 12.5 overs had a fair share of pace too. The honeymoon period, however, had come to an end. A hamstring injury forced him out on the first day and that turned out to be the start of a disappointing season in which he managed just 11 wickets in five games. Kerala played in the Elite group that season and he would have had to deal with batsmen of superior quality but Sreesanth admitted that getting back in shape was an irritating roadblock.
A mystifying story did the rounds when Sreesanth missed five games in the Ranji Trophy that season. It was alleged that he was following an astrologer's advice to stay away from cricket for a certain period of time, an absence that would help his career in the long run. Sreesanth rubbished this claim but it was indeed surprising to see him travel with the side, train before games and yet sit out. "I wasn't match fit," he said, "I was working in the nets to get back in shape." However, if true, the story not only tells us a bit about the man's beliefs but also reveals the power of the astrologer. Ever since, Sreesanth - who somehow found a place in that season's Duleep Trophy squad despite such a lukewarm season - hasn't looked back.
Not only did he make headlines for some strong performances in domestic cricket, but he was being touted as a prospect in coaching circles. "Dennis Lillee and TA Sekhar were vital to my improvement," Sreesanth told Cricinfo. "Lillee helped me change my action from mixed to more side-on and it was great to work with such a legend." Greg Chappell spoke about him after watching him at the National Cricket Academy, while a few coaches around the country picked him out as one for the future. "I wasn't so quick when I started off," Sreesanth continued, "but I built it up gradually. As long as I can maintain my rhythm, I will get wickets."
Kerala's finest batsman, Balan Pandit, was a hair's breadth away from playing for India in 1955-56, while KN Ananthapadmanabhan, their best spinner, toiled away for 17 long years without gaining national recognition. Yohannan managed to break the barrier with pace, and despite lasting just three Tests, his impact on the next generation in Kerala, a state so beautiful that it's often termed as `God's own country', might turn out to be his lasting legacy.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo.