When 15-year-old Saravanan starts his run-up, his focus is entirely on the stumps. His run-up and bowling action are modelled on that of his idol, Santhakumaran Sreesanth, who has inspired many aspiring cricketers from the city with his entry into the national cricket team.
Saravanan and his fellow fast bowler Lipin, who sweat it out every day at the district cricket academy at St. George High School, Edappally, know very well that giving their best could take them to the doorsteps of the national team one day.
Like anywhere else in India, the game of cricket had never failed to fire the imagination of youngsters in the city. But, hailing from a city that was not known to be a powerhouse in national cricket always held them back. It was Sreesanth’s emergence as a successful Indian cricketer that gave them the confidence to dream big.
In 2001, Tinu Yohannan, who played for Swantons Cricket Club in the city, became the first Malayali to play for the country. However, he figured in the national squad only till 2003. Tinu’s short stint was compensated by Sreesanth who wore the national colours in all three formats of the game – Test, One Day International and T20. He was part of two world title winning squads — the T20 world cup in 2007 and the ODI World Cup two years ago.
“He filled the void of an iconic player from the State. Sreesanth’s success as an Indian cricketer instilled the belief in youngsters that they could also perform at the highest level,” said T.C. Mathew, secretary, Kerala Cricket Association (KCA).
Attribute it to Sreesanth’s success or not, cricket infrastructure has received a boost since his debut in 2005.
The KCA now maintains the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium at Kaloor under a five-year lease agreement with the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) and has started academies at three levels – district, State, and Plus One – across the State with the assistance of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Another KCA-project aimed at promoting the game at the entry level by organising cricket teams in all schools in the State over the next three years has evoked tremendous response.
Private cricket academies have also mushroomed in the city. P. Sivakumar, chairman of Ernakulam Cricket Club (ECC), which is promoted by a private company, said it was Sreesanth’s success that encouraged corporate bodies to invest in cricket clubs and academies. Mr. Sivakumar, who had coached Sreesanth when he was 13, said there was an increase in the number of quality fast bowlers in the State squad. “For a team traditionally known to prefer spinners, it’s now teeming with fast bowlers. This change has happened over the last five to six years since Sreesanth’s debut,” he said.
For upcoming cricketers like Sachin Baby, who has grown in stature through his power packed batting in the domestic circuit this season, Sreesanth serves as a role model. “He has always been a great inspiration. He wants more cricketers from Kerala to play for the country. He shared with me his experiences and kept telling me that the best was yet to come when I was going through a bad patch,” he said. His experience of having played at the top level also helped Sreesanth guide fellow fast bowlers in the Ranji Trophy State team like Sandeep Warrier and Manu Krishnan.
S.K. Nair, during whose tenure as BCCI secretary Sreesanth was selected to the national team, felt that his aggressive posture had its pros and cons. “The advantage is that he is not daunted by the reputation of the opposition batsman, which in fact fires him up. On the flip side, he sometimes gets carried away and leaks runs especially in ODIs,” he said. Sreesanth’s selection to the national team also sent across the message that consistent performance cannot be ignored for long. Mr. Nair said Sreesanth kept up his good work at the domestic level in the years leading up to his national selection. “His man-of-the-series–winning performance in the Challenger Trophy held at Mohali in 2005 during the course of which he claimed among others the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar left the then national selection panel headed by Kiran More and Coach John Wright with no other option but to select him. To his credit, Sreesanth justified that selection and established himself in the team,” he said.
Ravi Kumar aka Coach Ravi, who is now the Ernakulam district coach under KCA, vouched for the immense popularity and acceptance Sreesanth’s success has brought to the game going by the response to summer cricket camps. “Though the popularity of IPL is a major contributing factor, youngsters and their parents also have the Sreesanth’s success at the back of their minds,” Mr. Kumar said.
Jayan Thekkedath who had captained Sreesanth for two years at ECC between 1999 and 2001 said the cricketer had not lost touch with his roots in the city. “Every time he is headed for a tour or major tournament, he comes for a stint of bowling at the Edappally High School Ground where he had started playing the game as a boy.”
Robin Menon B.K, who coached the cricketer during his school days in Elamakkara, still remembers Sreesanth’s phone call after he achieved his dream of playing for the country. “He always said he would play for India one day and he has proved it,” said the proud coach.