A talent that didn't know its own worth
Sreesanth made his Test debut in March 2006. Since that Test, in Nagpur, India have played 78 more. Sreesanth has played a third of those. Anyone who has followed Indian cricket over the last seven years will refuse to believe that for 52 Tests India have had three fast bowlers more skilful than Sreesanth. Yet some of Sreesanth's recent Test appearances have come thanks to lack of alternatives, or selectorial punts against all reason.
It is unlikely Sreesanth will add to his 27 caps. Twenty-seven Tests for 87 wickets at an average of 37.59. Now he is in police custody, with possibly a handcuff around the sort of wrist most bowlers would kill for. A wrist that swung the ball from leg to off beautifully - but will now, for the immediate future, be used to sign police statements.
When he was bowling well, Sreesanth was a joy to watch. That seam coming out upright, rotating backwards, landing proud, having shaped away late, and then moving away. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, it would seam back in. He has left Jacques Kallis with his body twisted into a C, trying to avoid a bouncer in vain. He has run through the best line-ups on his day. Coming back from the cold, he has made a dead Kanpur track bow down to his swing. He has been part of two World Cup-winning XIs. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have been two of his biggest backers.
Clearly Sreesanth has been Indian cricket's biggest loss over the last seven years. Until about a day ago, though, it was a close-run thing between two questions: whether he had failed Indian cricket or whether Indian cricket had failed him. Until 2.30am on the morning of May 16, he was seen as someone who could go to South Africa at the end of the year, so thin are India's fast-bowling resources. Then the news of the alleged spot-fixing struck.
Sreesanth has a history with controversy. He is perhaps the only man in this modern PR-driven all-is-well world to have been chided in public by his own team-mates. When he got into a recurring verbal duel with Graeme Smith in South Africa, Sreesanth was left to fend for himself. MS Dhoni, his captain, departed from usual practice and criticised his team-mate, saying taking six to seven minutes for an over was not on, and that it was difficult to control Sreesanth when it came to verbal aggression. The crowd, the opposition, the captain, the umpires - Sreesanth had lost them all. To their credit, India still picked him for the World Cup that followed. In the first match of which, Virender Sehwag said at the post-match presentation that everybody did well except for Sreesanth.
In 2010, Sreesanth went to Sri Lanka, looking to make a comeback, but injured himself even before the first training session. However, some team-mates didn't buy it and believed he had hidden an injury for at least the second time in his career. "This time the board is not going to pay your airfare, you will have to hitch a ride on some ship," he was told repeatedly, even as he tried to come to terms with his own disappointment. And this was no banter between friends.
You wonder if not getting the best out of a difficult character like Sreesanth has been Dhoni's biggest failure as captain. Dhoni might have critics of his tactics on the field, but most of them will agree that he has been good with the management of most of his players. He makes the assumption that a player who has made it to the India team has the required talent and maturity to be there, and lets him be.
Dhoni's captaincy starts on the field and ends there. From what we know, it seems this didn't work with Sreesanth, and Dhoni didn't go out of his way to provide that arm around the shoulder either. We don't know, though, how far Dhoni went before he gave up. Or if he had indeed given up yet.
To call Sreesanth a difficult character can sometimes be an understatement. He has bowled deliberate no-balls during a heated contest with England batsmen. He has annoyed the most patient of players and umpires. He has pushed captains over the edge with his superstitious rituals before every delivery, hurting the over rate. Sometimes at the start of his overs, the umpires have had to wait for a minute for him to hand his hat over while he finished his worship of the crease. He threatens to throw the ball at the batsman every time it is hit back to him, regardless of whether it is a solid defensive shot off an ordinary delivery with the score reading 300 for 2. And he can be awful when he is going through ordinary spells.
Sreesanth has sledged players even when not playing. His send-offs have often been the variety Dravid calls cowardly when they come from the opposition. He has been hit by an opponent, with whom he kissed and made up before coming back with allegations of a cover-up. He often refers to himself in the third person. He has been sent back unfit from at least two tours without having completed a single day's cricket. He is possibly the only Indian cricketer in recent memory to have been on "final warning" from the BCCI without corruption being involved.
We don't know if those years of frustration and idleness had anything to do with what has allegedly happened, but they can't be an excuse. We can't be judgemental of the motives or certain of his involvement. There aren't many, though, who haven't spared - while making fun of his various photos and clips from tacky dance contests, and while making Sree 420 jokes - a silent moment for a talent that didn't appreciate its own worth.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo