Sreesanth's first bowling stint in the spotlight since last year's IPL was a typically entertaining mix of the sublime and the surreal. One marathon spell before lunch revealed the prodigious swing bowler India fell in love with in Johannesburg 2006. All through, and before and after, were his other trademarks: The over-the-top aggression, the what-was-he-thinking-there antics, the tremendous self-belief.
Uttar Pradesh batsman Parvinder Singh was coming off his most successful Ranji season but was made to look completely out of touch. The outswinger was working perfectly, and it had Parvinder feeling for the ball outside off. He was beaten on several occasions before he finally got a healthy edge to S Badrinath who shelled a simple waist-high chance in the slips.
Any bowler could be expected to bemoan his luck and curse the fielder, especially one as high-strung as Sreesanth, but there were no theatrics. Later, he explained his composure after the missed chance: "If I get him to edge once, I can get him twice or thrice." In his next over Parvinder, wary of the away-going delivery, was undone by an indipper, rapped on the pads in front of middle.
For the 11 overs before lunch it was enthralling stuff. He was bowling to the right-handers from very close to the stumps (so close that he once ran into umpire Suresh Shastri), but against the left-handers he employed a wide-of-the-crease around-the-wicket line. That stemmed the easy runs they were taking off him using the cut, and forced them to play more deliveries as well. The angle also aided his stock ball, the one that darts in towards the left-hander, and a delivery that jagged in sharply got through the defences of the tenacious Shivakant Shukla.
At other times he was largely ineffective, unable to extract any movement off the pitch. The pace was also generally low, usually hovering around the 130k mark. There were a few exceptions, such as during his duel with Mohammad Kaif, who was hauling Central out of the hole caused by the failure of the top order. Kaif dispatched him with a pull to the right of mid-on, Sreesanth's reply was a 136kmh bouncer, delievered with a "Let's see you pull that" to the batsman. "I know the pace is still there," Sreesanth said. "I don't want to break down just for the sake of bowling fast. Whenever I gave the effort it's 140-plus."
There were other Sreesanth moments. He bowled off an absurdly long run-up, and on one delivery towards the end of the day, he nearly stopped halfway to the crease. Everyone assumed he would walk back to his mark, but amazingly he speeded up again and bowled as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Soon after, a superbly-disguised slower ball got rid of Naman Ojha, giving Sreesanth his third wicket, and also keeping alive South's slim hopes of wresting the first-innings lead. He was pleased with his rhythm after finishing with 3 for 92, and that he had bowled 25 overs in the innings without any sign of his back injury flaring up. Whether that convinces the watching national selectors remains to be seen.