A bowler with heart and skill

Sreesanth should be in the thick of things, in both forms of the game, in the days ahead. A match-winner cannot be ignored, writes S. Dinakar.

Santhakumaran Sreesanth does not like the sight of batsmen. This, actually, is not such a bad attribute to a fast bowler. He races in aggressively, accelerating with every stride, has a run-up that blends well with his action, and can propel the ball at worrying speeds for the men facing him. More importantly, he swings the ball.

Sreesanth has one of the meanest out-swingers in the business. His wrist and seam positions are ideal, and he keeps the wicketkeeper and the slip cordon busy.

"He bowls at a straight line and then takes the ball away," confessed South African skipper Graeme Smith. He should know. The South Africans had been swung out by Sreesanth at the Wanderers for just 84 on day two of the first Test.

Yet, Sreesanth is more than just an out-swing bowler. His bowling in India's historic victory in the first Test was as much about heart as skill. He made things happen, even if one of his celebrations landed him in trouble with the match referee.

When skipper Rahul Dravid tossed the new ball to him, the young paceman blitzed through; five for 40 in 10 overs of control and precision. Not one of his victims was a tailender. The experienced and crafty Zaheer Khan maintained the pressure from the other end.

Sreesanth was the one handpicked by Greg Chappell. The Indian coach wanted him for the Test series in Pakistan, but he got the bowler only for the one-dayers. The paceman made a difference.

The Australians have been a huge influence in his career. Sreesanth has undergone several training stints at Chennai's MRF Pace Foundation, where pace legend Dennis Lillee has honed his skills, along with former India paceman T. A. Sekar.

Sreesanth has learnt his tricks fast. He uses the crease cleverly to change the angle, mixes his length, varies his pace, and has a deceptive short-pitched delivery. He can surprise the batsman with his velocity.

The paceman from Kerala was a bit like a caged tiger during the ODI series. He was left out of the team for the matches in Durban and Cape Town. One could glimpse the anger within, although he did not express his feelings in words. When he finally received a look-in at Port Elizabeth, he left Loots Bosman dazed with a 140 kmph yorker. The `wild cat' had tasted blood in South Africa.

But then, there was a view within the team-management that Sreesanth was sacrificing precision for pace, was changing his action between spells. He was unimpressive during the second innings against the Rest of South Africa at Potchefstroom.

The experience, though, got him ready for the first Test. Sreesanth, now, comprehended the dynamics of the Kookaburra ball. At the Wanderers, he pitched the ball up and allowed it to swing. The Indians had to strike when the ball retained shine and hardness. Once it got softer, the Kookaburra ball would do little in the air.

What makes Sreesanth a distinct threat is his ability to also bend the ball in. Once he puts the seeds of doubt in the batsmen's mind, he gets them into uncomfortable body positions, opens them up, finds the edges, or breaches their defence.

Dravid's field settings at the Wanderers — there was little cover for the pacemen square off the wicket in the deep — was perhaps instrumental in Sreesanth getting his length right. He could not afford to bowl short or provide the batsmen the width. While his bowling was spot on for most part, Sreesanth returned match figures of eight for 99. He got under the skin of the South Africans with his bursts of aggression, whether walking down the pitch or glaring at the batsmen.

Perhaps it was a part of a deliberate Indian ploy to have Sreesanth as an answer to the even more temperamental Andre Nel, to unsettle the host psychologically.

While his hip gyrations at the non-striker's end after slamming Nel for a six could be forgiven as a heat-of-the-moment happening, Sreesanth's gesture at Hashim Amla, soon after dismissing him, was uncalled for. The Man of the Match also lost 30 per cent of his match fee. But Dravid was forgiving saying, "he is one of the characters in the game and I would rather remember his bowling." However, Sreesanth needs to tread carefully on the behavioural front.

The Indian skipper also passed on a valuable tip to his emerging pacemen. "They may not be big built or may not bowl at over 145 kmph consistently, but they can swing the ball. That is our strength. We have to be disciplined." Dravid had praised his pace bowlers after the Test series triumph in the West Indies. Sreesanth scalped five in the eventful match, including Brian Lara. In fact, if India has performed much better away from home since 2001 — the side has achieved stirring Test triumphs in Leeds, Multan, Rawalpindi, Adelaide, Kingston, and now Johannesburg — it is because of pace which has played a key role along with Anil Kumble's spin.

Sreesanth should be in the thick of things, in both forms of the game, in the days ahead. A match-winner cannot be ignored.

He has scope for improvement, especially on the use of his non-bowling arm as a load-up lever. Happily, Sreesanth has shown a willingness to learn. In the West Indies, he did appear a little self-conscious while he operated, but in Johannesburg there was a flowing rhythm to his bowling. The fear of failure had been banished from his mind.

Sreesanth has more to do in the series. He has some spunk in him, and out-swing.