"Please get a permission letter from the administrator of Nehru Stadium," said the guard at Kochi's cricketing venue. I tried reasoning with him that we were interviewing Sreesanth, unarguably Kerala's biggest cricket star. Sreesanth had agreed to do the television interview at the stadium and I obviously presumed the doors would open for him.
But much to my surprise, the name did not work like magic. I had to meet the stadium incharge, massage his ego and get the necessary permission, but not before getting a spiel from him on how he will not bend the rules for anyone. "Whoever it may be, Sreesanth or anyone, rules are rules. You should have taken my permission before fixing up with Sreesanth," he said.
This was in March 2008 and the words "fixing with Sreesanth" have been ringing in my ears ever since Kochi Express got derailed. Like many who have known the Kerala speedster since he broke into the Indian ODI team in 2005 and the Test team the following year, it has been a mix of emotions since Thursday morning -- of feeling let down, cheated, dismayed and sad.
During that interview, I recall Sreesanth showing the stand where he sat while he watched an ODI in which his idol Sachin Tendulkar played. How he felt when he played at the same Nehru stadium in April 2006 for India, taking 1-29. He showed off his dance moves too, staying true to his image of being India's rockstar cricketer.
Barring exceptions such as the stadium administrator, most of Kerala fawned over Sreesanth. The locality in which he lived in Kochi before shifting to a gated community was renamed from Kailash Nagar to Sreesanth Nagar, before the change ran into some legal issues. For a football-crazy state, Kerala embraced its most famous cricketer with love and affection.
When he took that catch in the 2007 T20 World Cup to dismiss Misbal-ul-Haq, his friends including his doting brother Deepu started branding Sreesanth as a lucky mascot for India through text messages that went viral. Jokes starting circulating that you can hit a ball anywhere in the world but you will find a Malayalee there. Again his presence in the team that defeated Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final only bolstered his positioning as Indian cricket's lucky charm. Even Sunil Gavaskar made a reference to it during commentary.
This week, Sreesanth's luck ran out. Ever since, he has been the butt of ridicule and criticism, with most pointing to his sledging and unbecoming conduct on the field after dismissing a batsman.
But step back a bit and ask if the system did enough to protect Sreesanth. Here was a cricketer who was slapped by an India teammate and the system forced him to kiss and make up. The episode was dismissed as a heat-of-the-moment fracas and no effort made to address Sreesanth's issues. That he chose to give vent to his frustration over Slapgate over Twitter during IPL6 is proof that it still rankles.
Captain MS Dhoni has articulated his disdain for Sreesanth's antics several times and it was almost a given that the pacer's India career, thanks to his injuries and poor attitude, was almost over. He last played a Test for India in August 2011 and the final of the World Cup was the last ODI he played for India. Sreesanth has not played a T20 game for India since February 2008.
The BCCI should have realised that someone like Sreesanth needed psychological help at this stage. It did not. Unfortunately for cricket, the bookies spotted him. Just imagine, your playing career is almost over and here is someone willing to pay you Rs40 lakh to bowl six hopeless deliveries. Most of us often walk on a razor's edge between honesty and greed. Sreesanth, it seems when lured by the monstrous offer, threw in the towel, literally. On his career, the name he had made and the respect his family commanded. In just six deliveries, he delivered a body blow to just about everything he had earned in his playing career.
The few times I have met Sreesanth in Kochi, I have always found him surrounded by a group of friends. An extrovert, he clearly enjoyed being the centre of attention, the cynosure of everyone's eyes. The fact that he was the biggest success story among them, mattered a lot to Sreesanth.
It is easy and convenient for India to brand him a nut and condemn him for ever. But there is a lesson for those who administer Indian cricket. With the kind of talent that comes into the system and many of them end up playing the lucrative IPL, the BCCI needs to be more careful and caring. There are many who have been one ODI, one Test or one T20 wonder for India, and then consigned to the status of also-rans. It is the cricket federation's responsibility that they are made to feel part of the system.
The fact that despite a scandal of this nature erupting in the BCCI's face, the Board has decided that the show must go on and worse, without any references being made by the happy and jolly commentators on SET Max. It shows the ostrich's head in the sand approach the BCCI has to the problem. If the Board thinks banning Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandilia for life will cleanse the game, it is only fooling itself. Because the problem is with the BCCI. But there is little hope of the Board learning, as its president puts all the blame on the "three dirty cricketers''.
Cricket is a sport that is played in the mind. The National Cricket Academy in Bangalore is good enough to rehabilitate a player physically but do the cricketers get to talk about their different frustrations and get counselled by a shrink. Sreesanth took a path less travelled because he was shunted into the loopline of Indian cricket. And for someone who had tasted success, fame and adulation, the burden of being a has-been was too much to bear. And Indian cricket is full of many Sreesanths, who will keep getting exposed every IPL summer.
It is a slap on India's face that an India player, who has been part of two World Cup squads, felt the urge to get swayed. It shows India, who brags that her religion is cricket, failed to protect one of its heroes, just because he had feet of clay.
Back in Kerala, it is a feeling of having been deceived twice over. First by the sweat equity scandal that saw Kochi Tuskers dying a painful death and now Sreesanth in more than a spot of bother. Two self-goals that have effectively ruined Kerala's love affair with cricket.
Updated Date: May 18, 2013 15:05:49 IST