Sreesanth - Like a Rolling Stone

The numbers reveal as much as they conceal - 87 wickets from 27 Tests, at an average of 37.59. What those figures don't tell you, though, is how he could change a game. At the end of the South African tour in January 2007, Allan Donald said that he had not come across any bowler who could hit the pitch with seam bolt upright ball after ball as Sreesanth had done at the Wanderers [he took 8 for 99].

Updated: September 14, 2013 12:52 IST
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Those are the moments you never forget, the slaps in the face that sting years after the event. It happened in Seoul in 1988, with Ben Johnson scurrying through the airport like a hunted rabbit. Six years later, it was Diego Maradona leaving the World Cup under a cloud. For cricket, doomsday came in April 2000 when the Delhi Police produced an audio recording of Hansie Cronje in conversation with someone whose number he shouldn't have had.

Reality bit again a year when The Sunday Times published a story titled Saddled with Suspicion. Millions opted to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land for another decade, but deep down I knew that exceptional journalists like David Walsh and Paul Kimmage wouldn't get their facts that wrong, that the Lance Armstrong chronicles were one gigantic sham.

Compared to these betrayals, the Sreesanth saga is little more than a mosquito bite. At 30, he was already a has-been, someone whose last few headlines had been for bizarre behaviour rather than on-field excellence. Then, you think of the Wanderers less than seven years ago, and logic exits the room, replaced by lingering sadness. You think of the madcap celebration after a six off Andre Nel, and contrast that with the image taken from the court in May, of a young man being taken in like a common criminal.

The numbers reveal as much as they conceal - 87 wickets from 27 Tests, at an average of 37.59. He was neither consistent nor reliable. What those figures don't tell you, though, is how he could change a game. At the end of the South African tour in January 2007, Allan Donald said that he had not come across any bowler who could hit the pitch with seam bolt upright ball after ball as Sreesanth had done at the Wanderers [he took 8 for 99].

On the next tour of South Africa, he had Jacques Kallis contorting like a marionette on a string in Durban as India won by 87 runs. The fuss over one wicket becomes entirely justified when one looks at the subsequent Test at Newlands, where Kallis's twin hundreds denied India a series win.

In Kanpur a year earlier, he had employed reverse swing to destroy Sri Lanka resistance on a pitch so lifeless it should have been embalmed. Those were what Greg Chappell called the "Good Sree" days, but they became increasingly rare in a career coloured by poor judgment, erratic behaviour and bad company.

History, revisionist or otherwise, doesn't view the Chappell [coaching] years with much fondness, but the one thing that can't be disputed is that he came closer than anyone else to harnessing Sreesanth's full potential. When he got carried away and resorted to Malcolm Marshall impersonations and other futile experiments, Chappell would be in his ear asking: "Were you Good Sree or Bad Sree?" For Chappell, Good Sree meant keeping it simple - pitching it on the fourth stump and getting swing away from the right-hander.

When it worked, as at The Wanderers, he looked a world-beater. That he never became one tells you more about him than any conspiracy theory ever will. Plenty of people tried to carry on what Chappell had started. It wasn't that they didn't rate him. It was just that his eccentricities and attitude tested the patience of even the most Zen. It's hard to think of too many cricketers who were held in such little regard by their own teammates. To put it all down to jealousy, as Sreesanth's camp often did, was a grand delusion similar to those experienced by nutjobs who see even a broken toenail as a CIA plot.

But the reactions after the scandal broke also missed the point. Most of it was along the lines of "he's an idiot" and "he's unmanageable". He was anything but stupid. He was deeply insecure, and overeager to please. And as is so often the case with such people, he tried to find affection where he could. Inevitably, most of the attention and adulation came from the wrong kind of folk.

In the aftermath of India's World Twenty20 win in South Africa in 2007, his stock was as high as could be. At the team hotel in Kochi before a one-day international against Australia, a colleague and I watched his antics in the lobby for close to an hour. It was the sort of scene you see in Bollywood movies that depict the underworld. One individual at the centre of it all, the rest fawning all over him. These weren't friends. To put not too fine a point on it, these were parasites along for the ride.

It wasn't just his teammates that had a problem getting along with him. During the inaugural Indian Premier League, Matthew Hayden called him a "singularly over-rated bowler". Cricketing relations between the two countries were at an especially low ebb following Monkeygate, but Hayden's words weren't about antipathy. They showcased a lack of respect. If you can't get that from your fellow pros, you're unlikely to find it anywhere else.

His family didn't really help either. As the media in Kerala made him out to be the next big thing, those closest to him opened their doors to the cameras and microphones instead of slamming them firmly shut. Ask yourself how often you've seen the Tendulkar or Dravid families basking in reflected glory on a TV screen near you. You haven't. With Sreesanth, that was sadly not the case, with those that should have known what was best for him becoming part of a tawdry rent-a-quote industry.

At the heart of it all was an overgrown kid who craved acceptance and affection. He didn't find much of it in the Indian dressing room. As much as his fellow travellers admired his undoubted ability, they were embarrassed by antics that were often pure Vaudeville. As his career went off the rails, it was hard not to think of what Chappell had said in the wake of that Wanderers win. "What we're asking these boys to do, and they're boys, is to do a man's job. And he did it as well as any man could do it in this Test.

"The tough thing will be to back up and do it again because the emotional and physical strain is huge. He had diarrhoea yesterday and I'm sure that it was as much from the emotional strain than anything he might have eaten. It's a huge thing to keep going, day after day, game after game. These guys don't have the grounding in domestic cricket. We've thrown them in at the deep end, but in a way that it gives them the chance to succeed."

Sreesanth didn't really take his. Even as the world marvels at the ability that allows Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Vernon Philander to hoop the ball around corners, his career will be filed away in the could-have-been-somebody list. His gifts deserved far better than that.

Like Shoaib Akhtar, another mountain of contradictions, he would have made a fascinating interview subject. We never talked. Coming as we did from the same state, I didn't want to become the "embedded" journalist. Another colleague who put up with his whims once had to field a call at 4 in the morning after he had been thrown out of a hotel for poor behaviour.

At one point last year, we almost got around to arranging an interview. It didn't happen. There's little point to it now. The Wanderers fairy tale is now the cautionary tale. The ball will no longer come out the hand describing a lazy curve and then explode off the pitch after the seam kisses the turf. As Dylan sang in Like A Rolling Stone, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."

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