Sree swings the zeitgeist

Kerala's only cricket poster boy to date is getting his state to love the game

Sreesanth tosses down a few at a neighbourhood game near his home in Kochi © Cricinfo Magazine
April is a cruel month with its baking sun, microwaved silence, and a hint of pestilence. Occasionally, it can also be forgiving.

It was the first time ever a cricketer from Kerala was playing an international on home soil, and as the fourth one-dayer between India and England at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi started to unravel, the mood among some 60,000 people in the bleachers swung from elation to dread and back. It reflected a yearning that only a short while ago these people hadn't realised they possessed, one awakened by young Sreesanth and then answered like a prayer.

In a state where till a few years ago, the fax machine was revered as leading-edge technology and where, thanks to a perverted proletarian ethos, only a miniscule percentage of the population condescended to go to - god forbid - work, football and athletics had provided an escape from a dreary existence. In the continuously shifting lines of scrimmage that constituted football at its fast and furious best, and in the elliptical style of play patented in the state, Kerala's youth was to find both sustenance and a semblance of class conflict.

In contrast, in a clear instance of reverse snobbery, common people in Kerala considered a career in cricket for their children as worse than juvenile delinquency. This was because the game was for close to 75 years patronised by the better-off classes. The silver-spoon amateur was someone the man in the street couldn't relate to, and the rough, rebellious professional of the pioneering years was the sort people crossed the street to avoid.

All that is now in the past. As we approach Sreesanth's home in suburban Kochi, there are clusters of impromptu matches being played on the cleared fringes of paddy fields or on land reclaimed from the backwater. Like many other things, the backwater too, once such an ubiquitous part of this city, is fast disappearing, only infrequently reminding one of its presence when with, say, changing light, it flashes at the corner of the eye as if out there a match has been struck.

I am thoroughly enjoying the attention. I couldn't have asked for better. The limelight is what I have always sought," Sreesanth says when you ask whether his new-found celebrity status has been a distraction. Kerala's only cricketer to have represented India since Tinu Yohannan faded away after a promising start, Sreesanth has been mobbed by college girls, besieged by autograph hunters, and has had a road near his home and a colony named after him. His answers are fresh and forthright, with no sign of the clichés of humility or the angst worthy of a Danish prince that a previous generation of Kerala's sporting heroes, including some Olympic athletes, wore on their sleeves.

Since his ODI debut in October 2005, Sreesanth has scarcely had a rest, having played four back-to-back series, including two Tests against the touring England side. A good performance in Pakistan and a six-for in the final ODI against England ensure that he remains in the reckoning as Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid develop and fine-tune a battery of medium-pacers for next year's World Cup.

For now, he is enjoying the break, though every morning he continues to run, lift weights, and mentally prepare himself for the tour of the West Indies. Today, after his workout he went out for a drive in his new Honda City Civic Coupe DX, along one of the newly nickelled roads ringing the town. Kochi is now a city in overdrive, pulsing with energy and ambition, and as the elegant bypasses connecting the various suburbs indicate, a home to its new denizens but also a place on the way to somewhere else.

Sreesanth meets us in the living room of his home, freshly shaved and showered and trailing a spicy cologne. Occupying pride of place on the living room mantle, along with the trophies and medallions, is a copy of a certificate formally proclaiming him a member of the Ernakulam Cricket Club (ECC), from way back in 1996. "It all started there, where I developed my love for the game and acquired the basic skills," he says. "But the MRF pace academy [in Chennai] is what made me complete the transformation into a full-fledged professional." Shivkumar, the current president of the ECC and a former state-level wicketkeeper, was Sreesanth's mentor - the young man deferentially refers to him as "Sir" - who saw to it that his ward's years of knocking about in the game's lesser precincts seasoned him for the ultimate test. "He always put in the hard yards," Shivkumar says. "He never missed practice or a game. People used to talk about him even then, how he would one day go places. He was just so competitive. And he had basic qualities in him that no one can coach."

Shivkumar remembers the adolescent Sreesanth as a congenital optimist - loose-limbed, with his chin in the air and an up-on-his-toes-stride. And so obsessed with the game that he would carry a cricket ball with him everywhere as though he would hatch it - in the classroom, in the bus, and as his elder brother Dibusanth vouches, to bed as well.

Dibusanth, who now functions as Sreesanth's ad hoc manager, played at university level and during his brother's formative years was the perfect foil who helped round the hard edges of the latter's obsessive drive. Equipped with the ideal emotional thermostat for this complex and maddening game - always engaged but never upset - Dibusanth was the sleek, coursing hound to Sreesanth's taut, high-strung terrier. He speaks of how Sreesanth preferred entering a house by running through the wall rather than taking the time to open the door, so to speak. "It could have easily led to burnout, to major injury even," Shivkumar recalls. "But Sreesanth became aware of it himself and embarked on the necessary course correction."

Perhaps a remnant of those years is Sreesanth's little soliloquy - captured on TV these days - as he walks to his mark on the field. Sreesanth explains it thus: "People think I am high-strung, that I drain myself emotionally in every game. Of course, I keep saying things to calm myself and perk myself up, but I don't see it or feel it as draining at all. In fact, it's been a habit with me for a long time, this constant revving up, something like brushing my teeth."

For someone who models himself on Allan Donald - apart, of course, from Dennis Lillee, who coached him at MRF - it is no surprise that Sreesanth considers aggression his main asset. He also talks about some new arrows in his quiver: the ability to perform credibly in his second and third spells (which Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq recently noted) and when the pressure mounts, to reach down and engage a gear few suspect he possesses.

Sreesanth trusts his strengths like money in the bank but he is also, like his peers in today's PlayStation generation, very practical. "I am a dreamer, but I am also realistic. There can be injuries, there can be an extended run of bad form. Cricket is so much a mind game, but you also have to listen to your body. When it says `no,' you have to acknowledge it."

The historian Ramachandra Guha once tried to profile the well known Kerala player Balan Pandit: "I learnt that he captained Kerala, yet usually missed one or two matches in the season. This was enough for me to give him a face, deportment, and an off-field occupation. He was slim and freshly shaven, and worked as a manager of a plantation somewhere in the Wynaad hills. He drove down to the plains in a Willys Jeep, wearing a handsome blue blazer over his cricketing whites."

This picture may well have been true of the likes of Pandit or the flamboyant Jayantilal Mahendra but it was far less romantic where the journeymen were concerned: from the likes of Ravi Achan and Suri Gopalakrishna to K Jayaraman and KN Ananthapadmanabhan, whose tough, honest, plain workaday game kept cricket's low but steady flame burning in the state for over 50 years. Till not so long ago, in the Ranji Trophy, Kerala were easy meat for the big three of south Indian cricket - Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad - till a rejuvenated team made it to the knockout stage in 1994. Kerala became South Zone champions in 1996 and since then have never really looked back. Promoted briefly to the Elite Group in the Ranji league, the state has now made it to a point where strong teams can ignore them only at their own peril.

It was in Thalassery that cricket was first played in Kerala, during the Raj, and it was there that Colin Cowdrey, the son of a local planter, practised his earliest cover-drives, but it is Tripunithura, close to Kochi, which became the game's cradle. Tripunithura represents authentic continuity in a community that prizes it. Inside the old Fort area next to the Puja Cricket Ground - before they donned India colours, Gundappa Viswanath and Krishnamachari Srikkanth among others were fixtures in the annual Puja Cup tournament - are madhoms, former durbars of the princes. Each is big enough for a couple of hundred bodyguards, with room left over for any swordplay that might break out. Adorning the walls are framed photos of locally famous cricketers of the fifties and sixties, sepia encroaching on their dignified demeanours, faces fringed by thick beards or shaggy whiskers and a shiver of Old Testament fortitude, Ahabs in pursuit of some landlocked whale: stoic, proud, self-reliant, long-suffering.

The next wave: Krishna Varma oversees a training session at the Sacred Heart College's cricket academy © Cricinfo Magazine
"There was no support from the authorities whatsoever. We travelled the length and breadth of the state to remote tournament sites by third-class rail, sometimes without tickets, stayed in cheap lodges or sathrams [free dorms], ate common meals... What drove us? Love for the game, what else?" says Krishna Varma, a scion of the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin royal family, who played Under-19 cricket for Kerala in the early eighties and was a rising star before his knees prematurely betrayed him. A few years ago Varma, who in his prime captained the likes of Kiran More and Ajay Jadeja for the now-defunct East-West Airlines team, walked 17km from his home to the Sacred Heart College in Kochi. Only the Jesuit fathers were willing to entertain his plans for a fledgling cricket academy; neither the unheralded bandh nor the mid-day heat was going to be a deterrent for Varma. The Sacred Heart's credo is "Never forget the road you came down," a reminder of the Jesuits' troubles when, following the Dutch conquest of Cochin in 1663, most places of worship were turned into warehouses. This denomination's chapel was spared, the puritanical streak of the Calvinists reined in by the obvious beauty of the shrine's stained glass and the lifelike caryatids watching over the quaint confessional boxes.

Varma's academy now trains more than a hundred youngsters, and in deference to the presiding institution's wishes and his own inclination, he admits those who have genuine passion for the game - even if they can't afford to pay the academy's nominal fees. He points out that the majority of those flocking to his school are from the rural areas, from little-known towns - boys intent on overcoming obscurity and making a fortune. Encouraging signs, at last.

As the rare star in Kerala's firmament, Sreesanth himself is aware of the distance cricket in the state has travelled and of how much further it has to go before it can claim to have truly and finally arrived. The designer streaks in his coif and the Nike contract that Percept D' Mark is delivering to his doorstep are not the only things that are happening in his life following his newly acquired fame. There is already a sense of the need to give something back: he has funded a few charities, donated half of the substantial sum that the Kerala Cricket Association paid him to the ECC, and has become a brand ambassador for an NGO that is fighting AIDS. Trust Sreesanth's father, Santhakumaran, a former manager at LIC, to provide some insurance against potential bad karma: "Individual success is fine, but there's always more than just you."

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Anil Nair is managing editor of Cricinfo in India