A tussle between talent and temperament
Everybody likes laying into Sreesanth. Not always unjustifiably, for Sreesanth gives them opportunities. 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. He is painfully poor with his over-rate, going through elaborate rituals before every delivery. Often the umpires have to wait for his bending over and worshipping the crease before they can get his sweater and hat. The opposition captain has also singled him out when it comes to aggression on the field, accusing him of making comments about his family.
Sreesanth's own captain has not backed him much, at least not in the media. MS Dhoni has said during this tour that taking six to seven minutes an over is not on, and also that it is difficult to control Sreesanth when it comes to verbal aggression. Sreesanth has also had his share of stick from the crowd: it has been so bad that spectators have been escorted out of SuperSport Park and Newlands after getting abusive with him, fielding at the boundary.
That being the state of affairs, Sreesanth has mostly been a lonely man on this tour. However, apart from being good at inviting trouble, Sreesanth can also do something else. He can produce mad, wicket-taking deliveries, both out of nowhere and during honest, hard-working spells. He got AB de Villiers with a beauty against the run of play in Durban, but the Jacques Kallis snorter in the second innings there was part of a spell where you could see he was running in harder, and not merely putting the ball in. Just when you thought Sreesanth had finally hit some rhythm - and he was rewarded for it when the new ball was given back to him on the first morning in Cape Town - he started off-colour again. Lazy, as he himself put it.
For the best parts of three spells in this Test, though, his captain and even the crowd was won over. It helps that most of the times, even when the line is wrong and pace low, the seam is upright, giving him the best chance of mischief from the pitch and in the air. Outswing comes naturally to him, and he has been bragging about the inswinger in the nets, of late. A day before the match, he told his co-bowlers - in the midst of a spell of outswingers - that the next delivery would be an inswinger, and would beat Cheteshwar Pujara. Seconds later, inside edge onto the pad. In becoming the first Indian bowler to take a five-for on this trip, Sreesanth extended that form to the middle. Those inswingers didn't get him any wicket here, but he came close on a few occasions last evening.
The ball to get Ashwell Prince, almost a legcutter after having drawn him into a drive, was special because he was a set batsman, and 27 had come in the nine overs on the second morning without much bother. "Probably the best ball I have ever bowled to a left-hander," was Sreesanth's description of the delivery. "I wish I could produce that more often."
That was the inspiration India needed, and smoothly, as if he had been doing it all his life, Sreesanth followed it up with a perfect outswinger to Mark Boucher, facing his first ball.
Towards the end of his spell, after having completed the five-wicket haul, which he celebrated with folded hands and a look towards the sky, Sreesanth went back to trying for wickets with every ball, conceding easy boundaries and no-balls. It did play a role in two crucial lower-order partnerships. That, he said, was the case in Centurion too. "When I came here, I was expected to perform," he said. "Because, in 2006 I did really well in South Africa. Including myself, there were a lot of expectations, that I am going to get five-for, five-for, five-for. I had a put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn't get a single wicket in centurion, but I was fortunate that Dhoni bhai had faith in me, and the team management gave me an opportunity and I could deliver. The big difference is, I started enjoying the game rather than putting pressure on myself."
It is a delicate state of balance with Sreesanth, which he can lose easily. From bowling unplayable deliveries to real gifts is just a blur. While those spells with perfect deliveries give a reason to carry him on bad days, such unpredictable bowling - and behaviour, which seems to be a big concern for Dhoni - makes it difficult for the captain to back him. With Sreesanth, there is no guarantee of a minimum level of control. More than anybody else, then, he needed this spell. To reiterate the importance of taking difficult characters along in a team game. More than anybody else, he needs these spells regularly, for his rope will always be the shortest.
In terms of natural talent, he is the likeliest member of the Indian attack to produce these special moments. His temperament, though, often prevents him from doing so. Between talent and temperament, it is a fascinating tussle, and we haven't seen the last of it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo