Pace from God's own country

"I JUST KEEP it ball by ball. Let it be any match I play."-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Sreesanth is a new entrant to the pace pack in the Indian team. Nandakumar Marar caught up with him.

There is a buzz about S. Sreesanth on the cricket field, a feeling that something is about to happen each time he runs in to bowl. The youngest recruit in India's varied pace attack is always attempting mind games on the batsmen, putting to use weapons in his armoury acquired at the MRF Pace Foundation. He hurls a bouncer at startled batsmen, his outswingers keep slip fielders on their toes, he uses the width of the crease to change delivery angle and slips in a slower one occasionally.

He comes across as a game trier, ready to do his own thing without worrying about comments or consequences. Four wickets on Test debut against England in Nagpur and effective performances over five one-day internationals in Pakistan have been noticed. Ian Botham and Imran Khan, great all-rounders once and now value additions to television coverage as experts, noticed the spunk in Sreesanth and approved the young Indian's raw passion.

The wickets piling up for the young tearaway are certainly helping the Indian team management assess bowling options before the 2007 World Cup probables are identified. Aggressive he certainly is, sometimes going overboard with theatrics in the hunt for wickets though this 23-year-old pupil from the Dennis Lillee school of fast bowling won't be pulled up for lack of trying. Adjusting to the hustle and bustle of one-day cricket, he stretched his form in Pakistan to the home series against England, adapting to the refined demands of Test cricket.

Sreesanth bowled effective spells in the Nagpur heat and Mumbai humidity to trouble the batting specialists in the England line-up. He was also unafraid to use lip service against obdurate batsmen. For a youngster graduating to international cricket from Kerala, cricket's backwaters in a way, the absence of stage fright on his first overseas tour was commendable. Dancing is as much a passion as fast bowling, so performing in front of large audiences is not an intimidating experience for him.

Spunk is a positive quality to possess in a team where coach Greg Chappell is putting players into challenging situations for assessing multiple skills and utility to the group. Sreesanth is learning to cope with Team India's demands and is looking forward to a tour of the West Indies, where Chappell and captain Rahul Dravid will shortlist World Cup probables. He's proved to be a quick learner, tempering all-out effort in Nagpur to a more controlled version in Mumbai. "The Nagpur Test was my debut, so I was trying to bowl fast to impress. In this game, I was focussed on getting the basics right, bowling the right line and length." Sreesanth caught the Indian coach's eye during the 2005 Challenger Series in Mohali, along with V. R. V. Singh and R. P. Singh, as a fast bowling backup. The Kerala player has since moved up the ranks and figured in both the one-day and Test squads, proving his utility.

Competition for places should bring out the best in this Sachin Tendulkar fan, who started off bowling spin before MRF Pace Foundation happened and Lillee directed him to life in the fast lane. He typifies the new face of Indian cricket, street-smart in tricks of the trade despite diverse backgrounds. Sreesanth (Kerala) and M. S. Dhoni (Jharkhand) have gone up the Indian cricket ladder via the system for identifying sparks of talent, that enrolls them into cricket academies for further training. "My idols are Dennis Lillee Sir and Sachin Paaji. I just love the way they are, their work ethics, dedication and patience. There is so much more about them. Both are wonderful human beings as well," said the 23-year-old whose success will fire more youngsters from fringe areas to dream about Team India.

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Fast bowlers are a special breed, aggressive types looking to put fear into batsmen. Do you agree with this conclusion? Or is skill enough to intimidate batsmen?

Answer: I think skill is enough, but looking at batsman's eyes too helps. Just to tell him `don't expect anything friendly from me.'

How much of cricket is pure playing skill for an aspiring fast bowler like you?

I think skill is very important, there is so much of work to do. The more you play, the more you learn. The harder you work on skill, the more it helps.

At international level where playing skills are almost equal, it is the mind games, which separate achievers from the rest. What goes on in your mind while walking to the run-up and at the moment of delivery?

I just keep it ball by ball. Let it be any match I play. I want to make sure I follow my routine well and everything falls in the right place. Thank God it's working for me.

What is the mood in Team India? You joined the one-day squad in Pakistan and now have been inducted into Test cricket?

Great. I'm very lucky to be part of Team India. It's just amazing how all are down to earth and so supportive.

The Nagpur Test marked a debut for four young cricketers (Cook, Blackwell and Panesar for England, apart from you). What memories will you carry from this eventful Test match?

It was really a great learning experience for me. Test match cricket is a real test of one's adaptability to every situation, all the five days. The Nagpur Test was fun. I really enjoyed it.

Four wickets in the first innings, a dropped catch in the second. Test debut happened to be a sweet-sour experience for you. Did you get carried away by the excitement in both cases?

Not at all. As I said, it's a real test. I really learned from my mistakes and from my good days. I viewed the Nagpur debut as an opportunity to learn. I'm happy that I did justice to myself and am looking forward to playing more and more for my country. My best is yet to come.

The one-day series against Pakistan was a test of talent and temperament, which you cleared with honours. For an Indian probable making his first overseas tour with the senior squad, what adjustments were needed from your side?

Just the mental aspect, just did my basics right. I told myself I can do it. I'm thankful to the opportunities which I got and very thankful to the support from the team management and players. I'm just lucky to be among them.

Limited-over cricket demands quick decisions, players have to think on their feet and react to situations as they happen. What homework did you do for the tour to Pakistan?

I had one month of training at home as well as at the MRF Pace Foundation, Chennai where I met Dennis (Lillee) Sir and (T. A.) Sekhar Sir. I followed one routine, it helped me a lot.

Sreesanth from Kerala, Dhoni from Jharkhand signify the new wave of youngsters coming into Team India from regions where cricket is not the only sport. The reasons, in your opinion, behind this development?

I think you must look at the development in state cricket too. I'm really thankful to the Kerala Cricket Association, which really helped me a lot in becoming what I am today. The (Indian team) management is working hard on every player to make sure he gets the right opportunities. This really keeps one going for more. I would love to see more cricketers like us coming up.

Will the sight of a Kerala lad bowling with the new ball for India draw more youngsters from your state to the game?

Not really. It is thanks to Tinu Yohannan. He put life into Kerala cricket in one way, showing us that playing for India is a possibility. I always wanted to play for my country. I play cricket because I love this game a lot and I'm sure it will be great if more youngsters come up.

Recognition has already come your way, in the form of queries for a career in management. As a new entrant to professional cricket, will you do it full-time or pursue education as an alternate career?

I'm representing my country so I will surely do my best, give everything I've got. Even while spending more time on improving my game in every aspect, I will make sure to do some studies too in future. I love to learn, there's so much in this world to learn. One will never get bored.

Greg Chappell has his own way of bringing out the best in people. How does he do it?

He is a great human being. A straightforward person. He really helps everyone and treats everyone the same way. I love his work ethics and am really lucky to be a part of Team India under his guidance. He respects the game. I just love to work under him. My experience till now is great, lots of learning and I love it.

Shanthakumaran Sreesanth is different. He can do the breakdance, is interested in studying psychology alongside cricket education, talks to himself while walking to the run-up and even wore bowling shoes of different colours on Test debut in Nagpur. In keeping with diverse interests, the laptop is an essential part of his baggage, useful for studying video analysis of his own bowling action, surfing the net for news/information/entertainment and keeping in touch with people.

The jiggle after taking Imran Farhat's wicket in the one-dayers against Pakistan, resembling celebrations by African footballers, is only one of his many ways to express joy. "It just happened. I love dancing and music, maybe I started to enjoy more while playing too," said this former breakdance lover and participant in zonal competitions, about whether the post-wicket jiggle was planned. "I always loved to watch fast bowlers, especially West Indian celebrations." More flying routines are in store.

A different coloured shoe on each foot on debut Test, picked up after television cameras focussed on the footwear, was a curious sight. When quizzed by media people, Sreesanth pointed to different shoe sizes as the reason. According to him, the left foot is size 12, the right 11, with the bigger shoe worn to reduce the impact on delivery stride. What forced him to wear one with black stripes and the other with red bands across the ankle remains a mystery. No time to plan? Or plain brand building?

Favourite sporting idol: Lance Armstrong. Favourite non-sporting idol: Dr. A. P. J. Kalam. Favourite relaxation:

Music, dancing, movies too whenever I get time.

Favourite saying:

Never 'ever' give up. Always keep at it. If there is no door for me, I will build one.

Favourite author: Agatha Christie.