Trying hard to simmer down

“After playing county cricket I have realised that you don’t get a wicket every ball”, says Sreesanth in this chat with Nandakumar Marar.

Allan Donald, the Warwickshire coach last season, reportedly liked the decisive spells by S. Sreesanth for the county. The Indian fast bowler had been recommended to the county by the former South African pace ace for his ability to make the new ball count and for his aggressive attitude in the hunt for wickets.

Sreesanth returned from county cricket with 22 wickets in 10 matches and no notices for indiscipline. He headed straight into domestic cricket, playing for Rest of India in the Irani Cup and later for the star-studded India Blue in the Challengers Series for the N. K. P. Salve Trophy.

Sreesanth’s stint in county cricket sharpened his swing bowling skills and also helped develop his batting, as was evident when he played for Rest of India in Nagpur. He batted straight against the Mumbai seam bowlers and then gained respect from top-order batsmen such as Wasim Jaffer and Rohit Sharma with movement off the pitch at the VCA stadium. Sreesanth and Munaf Patel shared eight wickets and gave Rest the first innings lead. This ultimately decided the Irani Cup outcome in Rest’s favour.

Sreesanth is still on a short fuse as he reacted to a provocation from Mumbai tailender Dhaval Kulkarni and was fined 60 per cent of his match fees. The equanimity shown in Warwickshire evaporated as soon as Sreesanth landed in India. S. Badrinath, the acting Rest of India captain, wondered when the fast bowler would learn. “I told him to pressurise batsmen with his bowling. Sreesanth’s class as a swing bowler has been seen by all, so why does he have to do these things?”

Sreesanth glared down nervous batsmen in the Challenger, was not pulled up for intimidation, nor did batsmen bite the bait. He is on the BCCI watchlist following the Irani Cup incident. He has also been given an official warning to mend his ways or face suspension from domestic cricket. As Kerala’s Ranji captain for the coming season, Sreesanth can expect close scrutiny from the umpires for bad behaviour.

Seam position comes naturally for the maverick fast bowler, who, at 27, is still to comprehend the fine line between aggression and intimidation. The back injury is history, he is aiming to digest his county lessons and return to playing for Team India as a wicket-taking bowler.

He is a Muhammad Ali fan and Sreesanth’s first domestic season as Ranji Trophy captain will be a test of maturity as well as cricketing intelligence for him.

Excerpts from an interview conducted during the Irani Cup:

Question: With your experience in international cricket and achievements, don’t you think it is time to stop getting provoked by opponents and start rising above provocation? You again got into trouble at the Irani Cup…

Answer: It was an eye-opener for me. That one incident led to a Level II offence. All I did was ask whether he heard me using those words. Dhaval Kulkarni knew I did not abuse him, so the apology came instantly. You must have seen it. I didn’t react earlier when catches were dropped (off my bowling). I encouraged the fielders by clapping and saying that things would get better.

Your expression while running in to bowl and your actions on the field give the impression that a lot of thoughts are going on in your mind at the same time…

I used to think a lot. Now I think only about cricket on the field, how I can be a better cricketer. Off the field, I think about how I can be a better person. On the field I keep it simple and switch on, switch off. Rahul Dravid told me a long time back about switching off when a gap is there, maybe while tying the shoelace or taking a sip of water. He told me it was not possible to concentrate every single ball. I plan a wicket now rather than just run in hard and bowl fast every ball. I learnt in county cricket that you don’t get a wicket every ball.

In your outlook to life and cricket, are you doing anything to bring about clarity of thought?

Absolutely. The decision to play county cricket for example. I had the opportunity the day I started playing for India, but didn’t take up the county offer thinking that there were too many matches and I would suffer from burnout. I was actually preserving myself, but the county stint proved me wrong. The best decision I have taken is going and playing continuous cricket, not thinking about my injury. I did not think I would survive after the stress fracture of my back, playing six first-class games in six weeks. Thanks to Allan Donald, who pointed out to me that ‘if this was a Test match you would not say no, you would run in hard.’ He told me to just go out there and bowl and that injuries were not in my control. That is what I did at Warwickshire.

Personally, I read a lot and take time for myself. I used to say yes to everything earlier, now I have started to learn to say no. I spend more time thinking about the game. Earlier, as soon as I finished my cricket I was worried about things happening around me. Now I focus on making things happen.

Becoming captain of the Kerala Ranji team is more responsibility. How would you handle captaincy?

We had a training camp at Kothamangalam, I spent time with the boys to know them better. I spoke to each one of them and gave them individual targets. As captain, there is also a target for me. I will try to use what I learnt at the MRF Pace Foundation and at the National Cricket Academy. I want to be known as a players’ captain.

The recent county stint with Warwickshire appears to have revitalised your bowling, tightened your batting. Do you think more Indian fast bowlers should experience county cricket?

When you go there, you get into a proper routine and become more professional. I’m not saying that Indian cricketers are not professionals. You are not a superstar there, only one among those players and have to do everything yourself. Cricket is competitive and I enjoyed playing there. You get lots of chances to try out things. As a fast bowler, I enjoyed batting because of the opportunities. I knew that even if I got out today, another chance would come in a day or two. There are six days of cricket a week. The first and foremost thing you realise is the need to learn everyday rather than just turning up for the game.

Youngsters are entering cricket via Twenty20, enjoying instant fame. Your view of the situation?

Playing Test cricket for India is the biggest honour. The youngsters who become famous due to T20 and the Indian Premier League (IPL) should look at getting into the Indian Test squad. The recognition and opportunities via T20 cricket is fine, Test runs and Test wickets should be the target.

Indians getting to the world number one position has happened in boxing (Vijender Singh), snooker (Pankaj Advani), shooting (Abhinav Bindra). In badminton Saina Nehwal is almost there. Your thoughts on sporting stars emerging from different disciplines to the world’s top levels.

It is a great motivating factor when your own friends do well, especially Pankaj (Advani) and Saina (Nehwal). Advani is a good friend, we go to the movies together in Bangalore. Saina is with Bharat Petroleum where I work too. When I read about them, see them on the TV screen, I get motivated to be the best and get respected by people when I run in to bowl. I ask them what they do which I am not doing. Saina keeps it very simple by saying, ‘I do the best what I am good at.’ Advani says it is about habit. He tells me that ‘everytime I turn around (to pot) I know when I hit the ball at this angle, it will go in a particular direction.’ It is like running in to bowl. I know when I bowl an outswinger and the ball hits the right area, these are the only shots a batsman can play. Success has become a habit for Advani and Saina. Success is nothing but doing that one simple thing daily — for Saina playing that one shot and for Vijender, throwing that one punch.

When cricketers talk, on tours or in camps, is there a feeling that these sportspersons who brought glory to India deserve more attention, respect?

I won’t say anything against the game, me being in cricket. I support other sports, love other sports and respect what they do. Every sport is different and the way people look at it is different. Media and money-wise and support from people, other sports are coming up. For example, Saina or even Vijender are featuring in advertisements and doing endorsements. When we go to the airport, we do realise that when Bindra comes, people do notice and respect him because he is the only Indian to win an individual Olympic gold. The thinking of the people has changed, it is not just cricket that is popular any more. I am from Kerala where athletes are popular. I am the second cricketer. If Tinu Yohanan had not played cricket (for India), I would not have taken to cricket, maybe taken to studies. You have to be fortunate to follow the right sport, be in the right place at the right time. I respect all games and wish them all the best. Cricket is my life and I will always support it.

Deccan Chargers has signed up Saina Nehwal as brand ambassador. Do you feel other IPL teams also can think along the same lines with other Indian achievers?

Surely. I congratulate Deccan Chargers for the choice of Saina. I remember meeting her in 2007 when we won the T20 World Cup. We were selected as the best sportspersons in BPCL. I remember Saina telling me that she is married to badminton, has no boyfriends. She told me that her concentration was on realising badminton ambitions and if things went her way, she would become world number one. I hope other teams are watching. It will certainly motivate other youngsters to take up that sport. It is like the lines from the song, Eye Of The Tiger, “so many times it happens so fast, you change your passion for glory.” Money and exposure you can get with marketing, respect from people can come only when you achieve something that is not easy.

Any one person you wish to meet? A sporting great who will make your day?

Muhammad Ali. I like the way he used to say, “I am the champ. The champ is here. The champ knows where he is going.” I enjoy watching documentaries on Muhammad Ali. I would love to meet him, touch his feet the Indian way and take his blessings.