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The Devil in a God-fearing Home

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The parents of S Sreesanth, a devout couple, might be thinking even god can't help their son now.

Most websites offer visitors content related to what they are viewing. For example, if you are reading an article, a synopsis of a related article slides in from the bottom right of your screen and ducks back out, like a mouse hurrying back into its hideout.

The human mind is like this too. Something happens in the outside world, and something you had long forgotten resurfaces in your head. When the spot-fixing scandal was exposed on Thursday, one’s internal server threw up the memory of an interview with S Sreesanth at the ITC Grand Central hotel in Mumbai in 2007. What one specifically remembered was a detail about Sreesanth’s appearance. He was wearing blue contact lenses.

At that time you excused the accessory as youthful indiscretion. Sreesanth was 24 then. He was a potential fast bowling mainstay who had all the basics. He was strong and quite tall. His bowling action was classical. He had a long, purposeful run-up with big strides that showed the crowd a clean pair of heels. His seam position was text book. Yes, he got hit a lot sometimes and he was annoying. He once glared at Sachin Tendulkar in a domestic game, after which Tendulkar’s bat tore him to shreds. But he had the talent.

Nearly five months after this meeting with Sreesanth Sinatra, something terrible happened to his career. He became a star. At the inaugural World T20 in South Africa, Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq was audaciously stealing the final from India’s hands. Then, in the nerve-jangling final moments at the Wanderers, Sreesanth caught him at short fine leg. It was the rebirth of Indian cricket after the dark, moody days of the 50-over World Cup disaster in the West Indies just a few months earlier. And Sreesanth had played a prominent role in the final, glorious scene of that triumph.

Riches and adulation poured forth for the heroes. Sreesanth, struggling as it is to handle the fame and fortune that comes from being an Indian cricketer, went bananas. India’s next engagement after the World T20 was a one-day series at home against Australia. This journalist covered those matches, and witnessed Sreesanth’s Mario Balotelli-meets-Prabhu Deva-meets-Shakti Kapoor conduct throughout the series. His eccentricities went beyond something harmless like coloured contact lenses into more serious terrain that embarrassed Indian cricket. His over-the-top appeals and send-offs infuriated the Australians. Over the next few seasons his behaviour would infuriate his own teammates.

One of the matches in that series was in Kochi. It was Sreesanth’s first international appearance in his home town. One Sunday evening a couple of days before the match, before Sreesanth’s antics had escalated to a farcical level, I met his parents, Shanthakumaran and Savitri Devi, at the famous Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple. They are deeply religious and for them Chottanikkara was an important ritual. Meeting them was a pleasant experience. They were approachable and without airs. The atmosphere was agreeable too. The flickering flames of hundreds of lamps lent sections of the temple a spiritual, amber halo. Mundu-clad men and women with flowers in their hair clanged the bells and burnt incense.

The sentence that Shanthakumaran used the most was, “It is all the grace of god.” Sreesanth’s success was the grace of god. The Misbah catch was the grace of god. “God put that ball in Sree’s hands. Pakistan needed six runs off four balls. They could have easily won.”

There were moments in his career when Sreesanth too seemed to have inherited some of his parents’ faith. He crossed himself frequently when playing. He wore holy threads and trinkets. He claimed to worship a picture of Tendulkar in his home. But he was far too arrogant, not to mention foolish, to actually learn anything from the powers he believed in. His involvement in spot-fixing was not just unethical, but also stupid. What else do you say for a man who earned a few crores from his IPL contract and Rs 25 lakh per year as a contracted player (Grade C) from the Board?

On Thursday, an emotional Shanthakumaran’s immediate response was to blame Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh for Sreesanth’s shame. But after watching the convincing presentation of the case by Delhi Police, he retracted his statements and apologised to Dhoni and Harbhajan. Perhaps the devout Shanthakumaran realises that even god can’t help his son now. And that it is god who might ask him for something – a towel to wipe his sweaty brow.