May 19, 2013

Him against the world

Ajay Shankar
Even at the height of his success with the national side, Sreesanth was a lonely cricketer who felt hard done by

Did he do it?

For a few years, between 2006 and 2009, I knew Sreesanth better than many of you - in my role as a cricket writer, a friend, and, as he insisted on calling me, an older brother. But on Thursday morning, like millions around the world, I did not have an answer to the question above.

Three days later, I still don't. During all those phone conversations that he and I had over the years, all those meetings - on the cricket field, in his hotel room, at my house - did I ever get the feeling that he would one day be branded a fixer? No. Never.

I did ask him once or twice about betting and match-fixing. I asked whether he had ever heard of these things while playing for India. Rumours, a stray conversation overheard, suspicious characters floating around a team member, anything at all? His "no" was always firm. "What's wrong with you, don't you have anything else to talk about?" he asked me once.

My last conversation with him was in November 2009, when I called him to say that I was relocating to Oman. My first was when I walked up to him in Kingston in 2006 and introduced myself.

"Malayali aano? [Are you a Malayali?]," he asked. My answer made his eyes light up. It was his first overseas tour with the Indian team, and I had just returned to cricket journalism after a gap of many years.

We soon discovered that we were the only people in the entire travelling Indian contingent - players, officials and media - from the southern Indian state of Kerala, speaking the language of the state, Malayalam.

I soon discovered that Sreesanth was an extremely lonely cricketer, with hardly anyone in the Indian team he could call a friend. I represented a generation much before his, and we had little in common, except for the language, but I felt that he was more at ease with me than with his own team-mates. I soon realised that he only wanted to talk to someone, and to be listened to.

Contrary to what most of my journalist friends believed, he never really gave me any "inside dope" about the team. Any such question was almost always countered with, "It's not right on my part to talk about that", or simply, "Why do you want to know?" We usually ended up talking about life, the power of religion, and even issues involving his personal life that no one would really want to tell anyone, let alone a journalist.

As the months passed, and as I travelled more with the team and with Sreesanth, one theme started dominating our conversations. His constant refrain was: Nobody in the team likes me, I have no godfathers to back me.

He complained that since he came from Kochi, a city that was yet to figure on the Indian cricket map then, he was discriminated against, particularly when the team was being selected. He claimed that his cricketing skills came to be noticed only after he moved to Bangalore, and that he had only ever received any significant support at the higher level from one man, Greg Chappell, then the team's coach.

He fumed that some of his team-mates from north India were spreading stories about him, maligning him. In fact, on the 2006-07 tour of South Africa, the crowning moment of his fledgling career, he was more concerned about a story allegedly being spread by some of his team-mates: that he always carried a knife about with him!

As the months passed, and as I travelled more with the team and with Sreesanth, one theme started dominating our conversations. His constant refrain was: Nobody in the team likes me, I have no godfathers to back me

Yet, soon enough, if briefly, he became an "established" member of the Indian team. Our conversations became few and far in between, he would often not answer the phone when I called, and after some time stopped returning calls too. Sreesanth the cricketer had become Sreesanth, the dancer, the brand ambassador, the star.

Then came a call, at around 4am one morning. "Brother, you have to come to the hotel. I am in the lobby and there is some breaking news." I was working for ESPNcricinfo in Bangalore then, and rushed to the hotel. There he was, chatting to some TV reporters who he had called too. He claimed that the hotel staff had refused to allot him and a friend a room he wanted, and that they had "misbehaved" with him. He wanted the journalists to do a story about that. I was more interested in the friend, simply because this was the first time he had ever introduced anyone to me as his friend. "That guy was my manager." he later told me.

I never came across that manager again, but I started seeing more such people with Sreesanth. He once came to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore with one such friend, and left with him. It was never the same person, though all of them were young, hair gelled in the latest fashion, sporting branded clothing. "Who are these guys?" I asked him once. "Don't worry, I know them well," he said.

"Just make sure your friends don't land you in any more trouble." I told him once, days after he hit the headlines for a party in an apartment in Bangalore that ended in violence.

At around that time, I happened to discuss Sreesanth with one of his former India team-mates. "He is so naïve. He will do anything for his friends," this player said to me. "I have once seen him hand over whatever cash he had in his pocket to someone who approached him with a sob story."

Sreesanth's stint with the Indian team did not last long, and he was dropped.

"I will come back," he said to me. "I will now focus only on cricket, nothing else." It was a line I would hear repeatedly from him, even as he appeared on tacky TV dance shows, in fashion shoots, and gossip columns linking him to various Indian movie actresses and models.

In between, there was the incident with Harbhajan Singh, where once again Sreesanth told me that he was being discriminated against. "He punched me, but everyone is supporting him. They are putting pressure on me not to take up the issue any further," he said.

By now our interactions were limited to the few times we met at the cricket academy. Then one day in November 2009, I tried his number. To my surprise, he answered. He wished me luck, and ended the conversation with his usual line: "Pray for me, brother."

I tried to stay in touch with him later on the phone and on email, but there was no response. Life went on, his and mine. Yes, he did keep popping up on my computer and TV screens, under various headlines, some good, some bad. And most of them brought a smile to my face. Until last Thursday morning.

Ajay Shankar has covered cricket for the Indian Express and ESPNcricinfo. He is currently the associate editor of Muscat Daily in Oman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harmon on May 22, 2013, 5:20 GMT

    Guys I don't know if Sree is innocent or not but what I find very abhorrent is the way Indian Media is depicting this whole scenario. Cos Sree is the more famous one almost the entire coverage is focused on him. Just about everything related to Sree is being shown AS IF they all are related to this spot fixing issue. Tell me, which guy won't have pics of female models in his laptop? What exactly is objectionable if Sree was with 2 women in his car? Can't they just be friends? What is wrong if Sree used to enjoy living in 5 star hotels and partying there? What is the problem if he is fond of shopping and wearing clothes worth thousands?

    WE ALL WANT THAT, almost all of us.

    Poisoning the well is an extremely dangerous fallacy. It sometimes makes an innocent guilty in the public eye and often exaggerates whatever the guilt is, big or small.

    I was never a fan of Sree but guilty or not the media here has already ruined his reputation for ever.

    Long live Indian Media .... NOT.

  • Deter on May 22, 2013, 3:16 GMT

    @latecut_04 Sreesanth bowled 8 overs in the 2011 world cup final match

  • mainul on May 22, 2013, 0:51 GMT

    @Kavindeven.Thanks for your feedback.Yes, you are right to some extent.Sreesanth was a raw talent, a raw charecter. But there should have been a mentor- an artist to make a good mould.India have that in case of producing world class batsmans, but not in case of fast bowlers.I dont believe, never believed that India does not produce quality fast bowlers like Pakistan.They are a huge cricket crazy nation. India always lacked eagle eyed experts to choose the real talented fast bowlers and to make them in a good mould.Pakistan had Imran,Miandad who introduced legendary fast bowlers Waqar and Wasim respectively.They were not the very best from the very beginning.But they were guided.Then Shoib,Aamer,Junaid,...never ending.Irfan pathan was a great talent but he was not guided.India is wasting time on Ishant sharma who i think is not talented enough to be one of the best

  • Ambarish on May 21, 2013, 23:10 GMT

    I always felt Sreesanth needed counseling; more specifically he need to go to a therapist to get his head set right. I do believe it is the responsibility of the BCCI to identify, develop and nurture talent in cricket, and to that effect, they must have some programs in place to protect cricketers from themselves and from the wicked world around them. Sreesanth has to take responsibility for his self destruction - he had the skills to dominate his sport - for those of you who follow American Football, Sreesanth reminds me of Terrell Owens - so much talent; so messed up in the head

  • Mithlesh on May 21, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    The problem at stake seems very deep. If thought and studied properly, it can solve almost all the issues that India is facing today. Most of us work hard as kids and teenagers, so that we are able to earn enough as grown up adults. When we do make it big, we do not know what to do with the money. We have absolutely no direction as to how to lead a life. We think we'll live it as it comes. And there lies the evil. The big events in life take such a short time to happen that more often than not we are blind regarding it's outcome and repercussions on the rest of our lives. In case of Shreesanth it seems that he was very lonely. He had no one, who, he would call his friend. A friend whom-with he could share good and bad moments . So, he was hunted down by the wolves, taken into bad company and induced bad habits. It might take massive overhaul of our education system itself, to dole out educated people with strong mental aptitude.

  • Dummy4 on May 21, 2013, 12:35 GMT

    Even after all that has happened I still believe someone trapped Sreesanth in the fixing... I wouldn't believe a player with his potential and passion would do that... he might be added to this, so that the fixing issue actually become a national news covered 24*7 by the national media ... Think about this - will this issue be even noticed by the viewers if Sreesanth is not in it ? We may discuss about this for one day or tow max.. no body would be that interested with the other two players arrested in the case... Sreesanth is considered as the bad boy of Indian cricket and he was just a victim for publicity...

    Anybody would certainly remember him as one of the best fast bowlers in India who could swing the ball at pace and the only one who could get into the skin ot opponent batsmen...

  • Arshad on May 21, 2013, 10:12 GMT

    I feel really sad for Sreesanth. Reminds me of a story when a poor boy had to lose both his hands for plucking a flower from the landlord's garden while the landlord's goats were busy grazing indiscrimantely on the flowers and plants. It seems Sreesanth has been made a scapegoat to "clean" Cricket of corruption so that the rest of the "clean" players can carry on merrily. But the Cricketing bodies including the BCCI and the ICC would be fools to think that general public following this sport would buy it so easily.

  • Kannan on May 21, 2013, 6:03 GMT

    The BCCI is to blame for the insecurity it creates amongst players who let down... especially during team selection. The process which brought in the regional quota during selection ... brought along with it player lobbying. This has led to such levels of parochialism in Indian cricket, that you would not find even "legends" from a region criticizing players from their region for bad performance during match analysis on live TV. If the "legends" themselves have belittled themselves by not putting on the Indian cap and instead putting on the regional cap, then lesser said about the media, the cricket administrators, the better. A player may be a regional icon, but he is Indian FIRST. It cannot happen, that a commentator thinks a 100 times before criticizing Ganguly (say) for fear of the wrath of the Bengalis. The Indian team needs a psychologist, to help people deal with themselves, fame, situations, captains, coach, selectors,etc. The faster the BCCI realises this, the better!

  • Rajkumar on May 21, 2013, 5:57 GMT

    @spinkingkk---Do you know Sreesanth was a part of the 2011 WC final Indian XI? He did not bowl a single delivery but Dhoni included him thinking he brought luck to the Indian team!!!Since you have stated that your comment is your observation and you may be wrong I beg to differ with your point. In England entire Indian team's performance(barring Dravid's) was catastrophic and it was definitely not due to Dhoni's poor captaincy.(he does not play well outside Asia in test matches both in front and behind the wickets forget captaining AND that's an entirely different issue.)and I am from Kerala and as soon as Sreesanth's parents started blaming Dhoni,Harbhajan etc for his troubles, he lost whatever sympathy he had garnered.

  • Kannan on May 21, 2013, 5:46 GMT

    Cricket is a sport and like in any other sport, one gets respected when one excels. I disapprove of parochial people who play the victim in sport based on their ethnicity. If you have basic talent and hardworking, and a performer, it's that work ethic that carries you forward in sport as in career. Of course, there will always be grouping within a team. One set of people would be more comfortable mingling amongst themselves than the others. There will be others who would not be wanted in any group if they are considered eccentric. Such are the people who find themselves alone. It's not bad to be alone as long as one learns to handle oneself. You need not have friends at the office for instance, just acquaintances. In fact that would be prudent. A competitive place is not where you display blind trust, especially when it involves confiding in people. Sreesanth it appears needed to be taught people skills... and how to handle himself amidst fame and the arclights. Period.

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