"Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure your diseases. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there is no practical use in that, there is most certainly value."
The quote above is from Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, the debut cricket novel from the fine young Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka.
What - or rather, who - those lines remind me of is an Indian bowler who cannot unclog your dreams, or teach your children how to behave; but he can sure as hell bowl the occasional ball (ask Jacques Kallis) or the occasional spell (ask South Africa) that can bring a nation to its feet.
That bowler is Shantakumaran Sreesanth.
Apart from Zaheer Khan, the Indian pace bowling cupboard makes Mother Hubbard's look chock-full. Given that, Sreesanth is by far the second most important member of the Indian pace attack; his potential as a match-winner cannot - should not - be underestimated.
Yet the whole cricketing ecosystem including the media, tired perhaps of his consistent trysts with controversy, has made him a virtual outsider, in the team dressing room and outside. Reports of his being humiliated in the dressing room surfaced again during the Test series against South Africa; on the field on day four of the third Test we saw the spectacle of senior bowler Harbhajan Singh loudly abusing him for some perceived misdeed; lip-readers will have picked up in Singh's words a reference to his team-mate's sexual liaisons with various female members of his family.
With the media increasingly prone to carrying the water for various high profile team members, it is no surprise then that the majority of what is written about Sreesanth relates to his antics; I am yet to see one of our vaunted cricket writers do an analytical piece on the merits or lack thereof of his bowling.
An informed appreciation of Sreesanth the bowler requires a degree of understanding and analysis of his performances; it is far easier for our sycophantic media, which prefers oversimplification and trivialization over genuine cricketing arguments, to harp on his personality traits and ignore his abilities. Add to that a dressing room that has made no bones about the fact that they see him as a disciplinary liability as opposed to a match-winning asset, and the demonization is complete.
I am no fan of Sreesanth's antics; I reckon that at times they are over the top and unnecessary. However, I'd argue that if his buffoonery spurs his brilliance, I'd rather let him be than try to "control" him. The trouble is not so much with Sreesanth as it is with our own double-speak: when on song and performing, his "aggression" symbolizes the "New Indian mindset", whatever that means; when he fails, however, that same aggression is dismissed as "antics".
Another aspect of this double speak is that we tend to value such "aggression" when it comes to foreign stars - from a Glenn McGrath to an Andre Nel, we tolerate, even excuse, the most over the top behavior, reserving our ire for the bowler in our own ranks.
This double-speak is often allied to double standards, in a double whammy of sorts. Pound for pound, a Harbhajan Singh has been guilty of acting up far more than Sreesanth, yet he is a "valued member of the side" who must be defended at all costs. Or take the case of Ishant Sharma, whose potential continues to be talked up. When we question it, we are reminded yet again of his brilliant spell in Perth against Ricky Ponting. Against that, when we talk of Sreesanth, it is always 'Yeah, well, he can bowl the odd good spell, but his potential for trouble…' - a meme that ignores the fact that Sreesanth's "odd good spells" have in fact come oftener than any of his peers barring only Zaheer.
So why am I making the case for this bowler? Largely because someone needs to - he is India's match winner abroad, and this is doubly important at a time when India, in its quest to reinforce its number one standing in Test cricket, will play all of its Tests on foreign soil this year. More to the point, the marquee match up of 2011 is the one against England, on the latter's soil - consider the conditions there, and you have to conclude that outside of Zaheer, we currently have no bowler as fitted to exploit the swinging, seaming conditions as Sreesanth.
Pause for a moment, for some statistics: Of Sree's 79 wickets thus far, 31 have come against South Africa and 18 against England - and the vast majority of those wickets have come abroad. Against SA on the 2006 tour, he had bowling spells that read 5/40, 3/59, 4.104, 4/79, 2/104 and 0/60. (When South Africa toured India in 2008, he managed just four wickets in three Tests - keep that thought in your mind for now). On this latest tour, his spells read 0/77, 1/41, 3/45, 5/114 and 0/79. Significantly, in the second Test at Kingsmead, he had a combined match haul of 8 wickets that was largely instrumental in India's pulling one back after being decimated in the first Test.
In England, similarly, he had three wickets at Lord's and five at the Oval, though the spell I particularly remember is 12-7-16-1 - a superb display of swing and seam that screwed down one end tight at Trent Bridge while Zak, at the other end, decimated England to power an India win and earn a man of the match award.
Sreesanth's record is clearly better abroad than at home - and hidden within those numbers is a clue to the nature of the man and his bowling. His bread and butter skills are the ability to keep the straightest of seams, stick to a line around off or just outside for the right hander, a superb wrist-position at release that permits him to bowl the outswinger at will and occasionally bring one back in, and his knack of bowling the fuller length consistently - abilities that qualify him for success in seam-friendly conditions such as South Africa, Australia and England. In home conditions, however, with the ball barely coming up to the batsman's navel from the shortest of lengths, Sreesanth's strengths become weaknesses; the fuller length provides opposition bats with the license to drive him to distraction.
If those constitute his bread and butter, what sets him apart is the ability to bowl the odd ball that will "bring a nation to its knees". Like that ball he bowled to Jacques Kallis in Durban - a brute of a delivery that would have done for any batsman in the world. Given the form the batsman was in, it took something extraordinary to get him out and swing the game in India’s favor, and Sree produced that. Or take the dismissal of the left handed Ashwell Prince - an indication that contrary to public perception, Sreesanth can think his wickets through. He set Prince up by bowling one that left the bat late and the batsman comprehensively beaten; having created doubt in the batsman's mind, he followed up with one that swung in the air, landed outside off stump, lured the batsman into the stroke and jagged back in through the bat-pad gap thus created to peg back the off stump.
In recent times, and perhaps as a response to his relative lack of success in Indian conditions, he has developed the reverse swing as an additional weapon. While he is yet to use this consistently, his progress in this regard was on view in the Bangalore Test where he got Tim Paine with one reversing away from the right hander. He also used that new found delivery to good effect against New Zealand recently, to do for Brendon McCullum in the first innings and Ross Taylor in the second at Hyderabad.
Clearly, he has wicket-taking skills - which is of utmost importance in an Indian set up where we insist on going into Tests with just four bowling options. Equally clearly, he is developing his skills, and already despite his now in, now out career with the national team, has developed and honed a variety of skills and is well on the way to becoming a finished bowler.
This brings me to an important question, relating to MS Dhoni's public admonition of Sreesanth ahead of the third Test. The fact that the Indian captain chose to do so is itself startling; more so when you consider that the bowler in question had helped win the previous Test and restore parity.
What struck me as strange was the sequence: South African captain Graeme Smith was rattled by something Sreesanth said; his mental concentration was upset and he fell, in the fashion of a novice, to the next ball. At that point, you had to say 'job well done' by Sreesanth.
Smith then chose to "take up the issue" with Dhoni. Fair enough - only, Smith accused the Indian bowler of dragging in sexual references to family members, while the commentators of the time, and subsequent published reports, indicated that Sree had told Smith he was arrogant, that even his own team thought so, and no one liked him. A Steve Waugh, an Arjuna Ranatunga, would have laughed in his sleeve and even let Sree loose on the opposition captain in the next game - but Dhoni chose to publicly upbraid his player. (If speaking out of turn to the opposition is to be upbraided, how about sexually charged abuse of one's own team mate on the field of play, of the kind Harbhajan indulged in?)
What impressed me about the young bowler was that despite that public dressing down, accompanied by media reports under headlines such as "Sreesanth Isolated", he still had the nous to produce a superb spell on the second morning of the deciding third Test.
By no means is this piece intended to condone genuine bad behavior - and admittedly, Sreesanth has in the past been guilty of some unforgivable antics.
What this column intends to do is to point to one aspect that hasn't merited sufficient public mention: India's bowling reserves being what they are, it is vitally important to cherish the pitifully few match winners we do produce - and Sreesanth falls in that category. Kick his butt within the confines of the dressing room, by all means; keep him focused on performance and not on acting up - but simultaneously, treat him like the match winner he is, and can be with even greater consistency. For, as Karunatilaka said in that eloquent passage I quoted at the start of this column, Sreesanth cannot cure your diseases, but when he bowls there is most certainly value.