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Livewire from laidbackwaters

Sreesanth's spunk epitomises the new Kerala, shed of the leftist influence that saw cricket as an elitist sport

Anil Nair

All that is good and bad about Sreesanth's spunk epitomises the new Kerala © AFP
He doesn't have the time today, and there's always the fear of being mobbed. Once upon a time, though, before he became an icon in his home state of Kerala, Sreesanth would follow a tiring nets session at Kochi's Durbar Hall ground by accompanying his club coach and mentor, Shivkumar, to the promenade along Marine Drive. They'd walk to the unused jetty at the northern end, lean on its wooden railing and gaze at the Ernakulam-Vypeen ferry make its slow passage along the sleepy river. Under the setting sun and cotton-wool sky, they'd spend the time in contemplative silence, taking in the space.
"Looking at him in the middle of a cricket match I often used to wonder if it was the same kid I knew", Shivkumar recalled. "Even then he seemed to have two distinct personalities - the quiet, shy boy on the one hand, totally transformed when playing, almost demonic."
The latter Sreesanth was in evidence to the world, of course, during the Wanderers Test when he not only bowled a match-winning spell but also displayed the "demonic" side of his character. Once again his penchant for the bruising contest and the big stage was demonstrated. From famously removing Sachin Tendulkar in the domestic Challenger Trophy and getting Brian Lara out for a duck at Antigua down to the peach that undid Jacques Kallis at the Wanderers, he's the type who guns for the marquee players.
So how do the two Sreesanths square with each other? The answer lies in the milieu - both cricketing and societal - that moulded him.
The overwhelmingly leftist ideals led to cricket [in Kerala] being seen, as scorned, as elitist. The sprint, the backstroke and long jump, not to mention football at its fast and furious best, seemed better suited to a youth seeking both distraction and a semblance of class conflict
Long before Kerala became a tourist hotspot its high literacy levels, remarkably low infant mortality rates, female empowerment and a cultural refinement at par with the first world had prompted the United Nations to propagate the Kerala Model and for the likes of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen to eulogise the state as "the Mount Everest of social development".
The pretty picture, however, had a seamier side that could be conveniently ignored - a lack of industrial development - as long as State intervention and money from expats in the Gulf kept the near-bankrupt economy floating.
The overwhelmingly leftist ideals led to cricket being seen, as scorned, as elitist. The sprint, the backstroke and long jump, not to mention football at its fast and furious best, seemed better suited to a youth seeking both distraction and a semblance of class conflict. For more than fifty years cricket existed just below the surface, the flame kept alive by a handful of little-acclaimed practitioners.
All this changed with economic liberalisation and the waning of leftist influence and, as business elected itself the new culture, the younger generation began ushering in a strictly functional ethic. Proudly professional, they had no qualms about shifting allegiances and replacing loss. They belonged to Kerala but were new even to themselves, their past locked away and the key lost. The arrival of a cricketer of international calibre was simply a matter of time.

Sreesanth is not afraid of letting his hair down on the field, even if his optimism at times appears naive © AFP
All that is good and bad about Sreesanth's spunk epitomises this new Kerala. He does occasionally come across as shallow and sophomoric but that shouldn't detract from the kind of triumph he is constantly seeking over, yes, himself. It's there in the obsessed mumbling as he goes up to his bowling mark, the comic calming-down mime that he practices, the ritual gestures as he steps on to the field or takes a wicket, the aggression that he dredges up as witnessed in that patented war dance after slogging Andre Nel for a six: to outsiders, all these may border on the grotesque, but anyone with any inkling of what the weight of inherited attitudes can be will realise that he is trying to educate himself into more liberal convictions.
In the Indian team these days optimising one's own effort is balanced by the emphasis on not letting down someone else's. This might be a legacy of the John Wright-Greg Chappell era but for Sreesanth, as with a few others, such attitudes only confirm the new ethos they have imbibed growing up in their own milieu. With Sreesanth there is, though, the danger that his optimism at times is so naïve that it can self-defeating. He himself is aware of it and the occasional restraining hand on the shoulder won't be a bad idea. "I was trying too hard," he said about how he was all over the place just prior to lunch on the second day, having already removed Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla. During the break the coach and captain had a quite word with him and soon he was back to sticking to the correct line and length.
However, what might be less tractable than temperament could be the workings of his own body. "Cricket is so much a mind game, but you also have to listen to your body. When it says 'no', you have to acknowledge it," he had told Cricinfo in May. For the moment, though, as a humbled South Africa will testify, it's a resounding 'yes'.
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Anil Nair is managing editor of Cricinfo in India