Sreesanth's homecoming: A throwback in Kerala colours at the seat of World Cup glory
There has been much anticipation around former India pacer Sreesanth's comeback since September 2020, after his reduced, seven-year life ban in the IPL spot-fixing scandal of 2013 ended. There has been trepidation, too. Can he swing the ball like he once did? Will he have that magical wrist position that many only dreamed of? Will he land them on the seam like he did? At 37, does he still have the pace? What about his fitness?
These are all fair questions, whose answers we will only know fully in a month or two, after the current domestic season, which has just started with the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, finishes. But on the evidence of what you could see of Sreesanth upon his return to competitive cricket on Monday against Puducherry, a full seven-and-a-half years after he last played recognised cricket, you could tick at least four of those boxes.
His pace was brisk, but the line a little off in his first over. He conceded two boundaries by bowling leg-stump half-volleys in trying to swing the ball late. As he returned for the second over, it could've been easy for him to correct himself. But Sreesanth likes a challenge still. He went wide of the crease, got the ball to angle in full, forced Fabid Ahmed to play forward but got the ball to move away just enough off the pitch to square him up and beat the outside edge to hit middle stump. Not banana swing, but it certainly rekindled memories of old.
The pace was there, the swing very much visible. It was as if he'd been bowling elsewhere all these years in anticipation of this very day. Sreesanth celebrated the moment in his trademark manner, channeling his inner Usain Bolt, as his team-mates tried to catch up with him. And as they huddled around to ruffle his slightly grey hair, Sreesanth looked up to the heavens, quietly saying a prayer, wiping a tear off his eye and then smiling away on the way back to his run-up, hand on his heart.
Much after his spell, Sreesanth was at mid-off, constantly speaking to his bowlers, offering them words of encouragement, giving them a pat on the back, and running up to his captain in between overs to discuss field positions. This was a Sreesanth switched on fully, minus the theatrics of old, but with determination writ large.
Was he nervous? Unlikely, because his return was imminent. He had been training hard, shedding muscles to become lean and mean again. He even hired an NBA trainer to help condition himself during lockdown. From as early as June, right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, he started training with Kerala's Under-23 cricketers in Kochi. At no stage did the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) hide their desire of having him back.
That faith and trust resonated in his body language; he didn't look like he was a bowler playing to prove a point, but someone just looking to enjoy the experience of returning to the very ground he was banned from, the very city where he was picked up for questioning by the police all those years ago. He also entered the very dressing room where he soaked in the experience of his life on that heady night of April 2, 2011. He didn't need more inspiration after that.
Watching Sreesanth on the field can give you visceral thrill. Go back to that ball to Jacques Kallis at Durban. Or that spell at Johannesburg. Or his mid-pitch jig to irritate Andre Nel after slapping him - no pun intended - down the ground for six. With the ball, you know what he can do, but you also know the Sreesanth of old was often prone to self-destruction, a by-product of his hyperaggression. Either way, as a package, Sreesanth at his best was so sizzling that you couldn't take your eyes off him when he had the ball in hand. So, you couldn't help but tune in for this very thrill, a few hours after the Indian team had pulled off a great escape in Sydney, among their most memorable overseas finishes lately.
The Sreesanth of old also brought with his bowling some quirky traits. The self-exhortations at the top of his run-up, the self-fist-pumps, as if to calm himself down after every ball, angry growls at batsmen, special celebration, the stares. But those looking for these traits saw a mellower version of the man, who, at 37, wants to be an elder brother for the rest of this Kerala squad. For that, there was a simpler matter of having to earn the respect of his squad through his on-field performances, and it didn't take him long to strike.
On his part, Sreesanth has repeatedly mentioned his desire to play for India again. India's pace stocks are at an all-time high, and even he knows he is being optimistic to dream of that possibility. But it's unlikely he would've thought of all that as he took the field. His end figures of 1 for 29 off four overs won't go down in history books as a record spell, but for him and those close to him, who have gone through all that they have over the years, this was the moment they'd been waiting for.