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

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