Sreesanth before being taken to court
Manan Vatsyayana / © AFP

Features

Sreesanth: the story of a fall

How the clown prince of Indian cricket is fighting his way back after a jail sentence and a ban for spot-fixing

Jarrod Kimber (with additional reporting by Nagraj Gollapudi)  |  

A motorbike revs up and takes off at high speed down a long and lonely street. When it finally slows down, merging into a group of other bikers, you see the hero. He has long hair, his guns are out. These are his friends; he is clearly their leader - his very presence fades them into the background. A stunning woman exits a car. She is so striking you can't keep your eyes off her. The hero is drawn in. He tries to get her attention. She's unimpressed and walks away. The hero acts out, but his friends ultimately calm him down. Soon the girl comes back, and this time, away from his friends, he is softer and they start to bond. And then, right at the end, she and he share a look that makes you think, maybe, just maybe, there will be a happily ever after.

The hero is a character that Sreesanth is playing. Of course, this is all fake, fantasy. There is no hero, just an actor in a film. As the taxi driver from Kochi airport told me when I went to meet Sreesanth in March of 2017, "Sreesanth's not good at acting", but he's "very good at singing and dancing".

A few months before that trip I knew basically nothing about Sreesanth other than that he had a killer outswinger, celebrated each wicket like he'd downed an alien mothership, could behave like a bit of a tool, and was banned from cricket for fixing.

Here I was in Kerala, having taken a brief detour from Australia's tour of India, inspired by a few things. Sreesanth had unsuccessfully run for a seat in the Kerala assembly at the time. His Twitter background picture then was him on stage with Narendra Modi, India's prime minister. He was trying to play club cricket in Scotland. A trial court in Delhi had dropped charges against him - primarily because, in the absence of a specific law against match-fixing, the Delhi police had charged him for violation of an organised-crime law (MCOCA, or the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act), and evidence for that was insufficient. But the BCCI ban stood. And, oh, he was a movie star now.

He had figured in the film Aksar 2, a sequel to Aksar, a Bollywood title about a deadly love triangle. And he was the lead in a Malayalam film. It was called Team Five; the one with that motorbike sequence. According to IMDb "Akhil who is the backbone of his gang participates in racing tournaments all around the city along with his gang mates. Akhil's life takes a dramatic turn when he falls in love with an event manager, Irene."

Sreesanth's real life was far more interesting than the plot of his films.

Everyone I spoke to in Kochi had an opinion on him - almost none of those based on any facts.

A man on a train: "There was also some quarrels between him and other players because of girls."

A waiter at a restaurant: "The corruption of India did it. Powerful men needed someone to fall, publicly. Who better than him?"

Bike? Check. Girl? Check. Sreesanth in a promo picture for a Hindi-Kannada film, <i>Speed Boys Dhoom Machale</i>

Bike? Check. Girl? Check. Sreesanth in a promo picture for a Hindi-Kannada film, Speed Boys Dhoom Machale © Getty Images

A guy in a bar: "The only reason they targeted him was that he didn't do the fix correct."

In Kerala, they support their own. They fight for the memory of their first top cricketer. And they almost all talk of outsiders - from outside Kerala for some, and outside India for others - entrapping Sreesanth.

My taxi driver: "The defamation has brought down his star. In Tamil Nadu, if a famous person says it is night time while the sun is out, it is night time. Here, we don't care for our famous people much at all."

When I asked if he thought Sreesanth was guilty, he said, "No, powerful men don't like him."

Why?

"I will not say, but he will be back. Cricket has banished him, but he will be back."

How do you know?

"He's Malayalee. They fight. And in India, nothing ever is over."

On the 16th of May, 2013, Sreesanth was arrested. From the information they released to the media, the Delhi Police had more than enough to keep him behind bars. They had a recording of a telephone call between Jiju Janardhanan, who Sreesanth admitted was a friend since he was 18, and Chandresh Patel, a bookie, known in gambling circles as CP. Janardhanan and Patel were heard discussing details of a spot-fix that involved Sreesanth conceding 14 runs in an over during an IPL game.

To prove the fix was on, Sreesanth was to do some stretching at the top of his mark, and then hang a towel out of his trousers. There was also hotel security footage of a friend of Sreesanth's, Abhishek Shukla, going to Sreesanth's hotel room in Mumbai and fetching Rs 5.5 lakhs (close to US$8000) and some mobile phones. The police also had a recording of a call where Sreesanth asks Janardhanan if he will still get the money, though the over went for 13 runs, not 14. And they had a tearful Sreesanth confession.

That's it, game over.

But the police also had a problem, because, as betting is not legal in India in the first place, there is no law specifically for match-fixing. In the UK there is the Gambling Act of 2005, which was used in the criminal trials against Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt when they spot-fixed in 2010. The police had no choice but to charge Sreesanth, fellow players Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila, and 38 people in total, with a conspiracy to launder money under MCOCA. Dawood Ibrahim was also one of those charged.

Leaving a court in Delhi in May 2013, under escort

Leaving a court in Delhi in May 2013, under escort © AFP

Sreesanth spent 27 days in jail.

Gold's Gym in Vyttila, Kochi, is on the fourth floor of the Syama Business Centre. In sporting culture, Gold's Gym is known worldwide. It is where Arnold Schwarzenegger famously worked out in Pumping Iron. The Kochi franchise was clean but small; the lobby had a desk and a sofa. I sat there for a long time; maybe 40 minutes. People came and went: young professionals, bodybuilders and gym staff. More than a few gave me a second, and third, glance, trying to work out why this gora was in the lobby.

I heard Sreesanth before I saw him, holding court with his trainer and a gym employee. When he turned into the lobby, the creature I saw wasn't the Sreesanth I remembered. That one was lithe, wiry and athletic. Kerala provides many of India's Olympians. As the first regular national cricketer from the state, Sreesanth broke the mould, but he did so with the build of a track-and-field athlete.

Not this Sreesanth. If the old model looked like a velociraptor, the new one was a T-Rex. His shoulders could block out the sun. The neck muscles were those that angry gym men get. And his arms looked bigger than I remembered his entire torso being. If he was working out behind Arnie in Pumping Iron, he would have fit right in. He told me that it wasn't for the movies, but to keep himself match-fit for cricket. His shape looked like that of no bowler I could ever remember.

He strutted over and gave me a big, friendly handshake; he was instantly likeable, all smiles and laughs. He asked me how long I had been waiting. I said half an hour, but he then spoke to staff in what I presumed to be Malayalam, turned back to me and said: "They say closer to an hour." And he winked. Whether he meant to make me wait or not, he liked that I did.

Sreesanth, his trainer and two gym staff were with me in the lift down. He told me that this was by far the best gym in Kochi, then turned to his staff and spoke to them in something other than English again. I asked if that comment got him a discount on his membership. He laughed and patted me on the back, as that was exactly what he was trying to do. He was as cheeky in person as I remembered him on the field.

Sreesanth is known for many different things. Some remember him as a very upright, overly coached fast-medium bowler with a hooping outswinger.

But for most, they remember the colour, the controversy, the carnage he brought with him. With Sreesanth, the cricket was always second to the chaos. Like the time he went up and glared at Sachin Tendulkar in a domestic game, before Tendulkar hit him for six and told him not to come that close again. There's no documented evidence that this actually happened, but it's still firmly part of Sreesanth lore. He once sledged Andrew Symonds - when he, Sreesanth, was 12th man. One time, after Andre Nel had questioned his heart, Sreesanth hit the next ball for six and then danced around the wicket like he was spanking an invisible horse. And that doesn't even include Slapgate, where Harbhajan Singh physically attacked him after a match.

Gloves on: Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth at a promotional event in 2010 that riffed on the Slapgate incident

Gloves on: Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth at a promotional event in 2010 that riffed on the Slapgate incident Kunal Patil / © Getty Images

There is little doubt that Sreesanth rubbed people up the wrong way, no matter what he did. Some probably didn't like his showiness on the field; he pranced around and enjoyed himself, and at times he dressed like an Indian homage to Dennis Lillee. His sledging and aggression were right out in front.

And there was also the way he lived his off-field life, "Sometimes I would spend £4000 on a night out in London," he told me. If the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman were like the pastor coming over for Sunday lunch, Sreesanth was the next-door neighbour crashing the party, topless, singing Creedence Clearwater Revival songs as he emptied the drinks cabinet.

Sreesanth's Test bowling average was 37 and in ODIs 33 (acceptable for a fast bowler based in India), but his 169 international wickets included huge scalps in Tests: Hashim Amla six times, AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen five times, and just for fun, Brian Lara. Twice. Sreesanth could play.

These are the three most important things about Sreesanth I learnt at his house: Just inside his door is a religious shrine that he is very serious about. Right off the lounge, he has a shrine dedicated to his achievements. His dog's name is Roxy - short for rock star.

We sat in his lounge and chatted about the fixing allegations. He answered all my questions, but you could tell he was working me a bit. Trying to find out if I was on his side, what my angle was. Around that time, most of his recent media had been with Kerala publications, and there were a couple of podcasts by people who had an interest in him playing again.

Sreesanth didn't know who I was or where I stood on his case and although it was clear he was trying to impress me (his wife cooked three kinds of chicken, in case I didn't like the first one - they were all great). You could tell he tries to win people over; he wants to be liked, to be impressive. He mentioned, unprompted, that he had met Narendra Modi at one time.

He talked, vaguely, about corruption in cricket, without ever getting specific, and to prove that there was corruption in cricket, he brought up a film he had just watched: Death of a Gentleman. He asked if I had seen it. Awkwardly, I pointed out I was one of the makers of that film. His eyes widened, and from that point he was no longer trying to work me out or play me. He saw me as a kindred soul, fighting the good fight.

Lara who? Sreesanth had his fair share of prize scalps in Test cricket

Lara who? Sreesanth had his fair share of prize scalps in Test cricket © AFP

I got a tour of his house, which included an indoor cricket net he was installing on the top floor, and he showed me some of his bats.

He made his case for innocence often, telling me that he had the towel tucked into his trousers all the time. His wife said she found photos online of him wearing a towel in previous matches. He pointed out that he was making a comeback, that he had missed the entire 2012 season and was using the IPL as a way of reminding the Indian selectors of his worth.

He made some bizarre claims - such as that just before he was accused of fixing, he had been dropped because he had tweeted about Slapgate, which angered the BCCI. Another was that after bowling MS Dhoni once when the IPL was in South Africa, he pranced around like a lunatic, and because of that he was never allowed to play against Chennai Super Kings again. His claim is not quite correct, but in his next 22 IPL games he only played against Chennai once.

Sreesanth talked a lot, bouncing between thoughts. Often, by the time I narrowed down and focused on what he was saying, he was already two or three thoughts on. It was during one of these endlessly changing conversations that we both heard a scream. I was worried that it was his daughter, but then we heard it again and his wife ran in shouting, "Roxy!" Sreesanth bolted out the front door.

Roxy had got her giant paw stuck between two wooden slats. Roxy is a Rottweiler, and was whining in pain, but no one wanted to stick their hand in, because if she turned, she would have made a mess of them.

There were suddenly about six or seven people around us, various employees. No one was sure what to do, but Sreesanth was like an action hero, flying around the cage, trying to find something to pry the offending wood loose.

One guy picked up a broom, so I grabbed a rake, and we tried with our puny little arms to move the plank, but got nowhere. Sreesanth grabbed a giant pickaxe. Whack. I looked around. His wife was worried. Whack. His staff were trying to work out how best to help. Whack. His tiny daughter, held by her nanny, was looking a bit shocked. Whack. The whole thing felt like a scene from one of Sreesanth's films. Whack. Eventually the piece of wood flew off, Roxy was freed but limping, the vet was called, and we headed back inside.

I could barely believe what had happened. I had dirt all over my hands. Sreesanth directed me to his bathroom. I washed my hands, turned around to use the towel, and it was his 2011 World Cup towel, the one a board issues to players during the tournament.

Before he muscled up, Sreesanth was a wiry athlete of the sort Kerala typically produced

Before he muscled up, Sreesanth was a wiry athlete of the sort Kerala typically produced Indranil Mukherjee / © AFP

Those 30 minutes had been the most Sreesanth ever. And what is it with Sreesanth and towels?

In September 2013, four months after the supposed fix, Sreesanth appeared in front of a BCCI disciplinary committee in Delhi. In that room were some of the biggest hitters in Indian cricket administration: Arun Jaitley, Niranjan Shah and the most powerful man in world cricket at the time, N Srinivasan. Two days before the hearing, Sreesanth had submitted his written response to Ravi Sawani, the BCCI's anti-corruption head, on whose investigation the BCCI acted.

Sawani, who headed the ICC's anti-corruption unit between 2008 and 2011, was a joint director of India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and also headed the government-appointed inquiry panel that probed the 2000 match-fixing scandal and nailed Mohammad Azharuddin. Sawani produced two reports for the Sreesanth case: an interim one, on June 6, 2013, that was based primarily on the taped phone conversations, and a supplementary one after a day-long session with Sreesanth, on June 24, 2013.

Sawani submitted that second report to BCCI on July 8 that year, saying there was sufficient evidence to conclude Sreesanth was involved in spot-fixing and that he had breached various rules under the board's anti-corruption code.

"I was in there for 10-15 minutes," Sreesanth told me of the disciplinary committee hearing. "They hardly listened. They asked three questions. The first question was, 'Have you done it?' The second question was 'What did you do with the money?' So basically they didn't listen to the answer of the first question. The third question: 'Don't tell lies to us. You have been caught red-handed, so what do you want to say about this?'

"By the time I came down in the lift, the news was saying I had a life ban. They didn't even review my reply, or even the meeting we just had, so whatever they did was just completely not part of a good system."

According to Sawani, who was present at that hearing of the disciplinary committee, the panel asked Sreesanth whether he had anything over and above what was mentioned in his written response to the show-cause notice. The committee, Sawani says, arrived at its conclusion to impose the life ban on the same day but it was not premeditated, as Sreesanth suggested. "There was sufficient deliberation within the committee discussing the evidence," according to Sawani.

The inquiry focused on three pieces of evidence. One was a phone recording of Sreesanth's friend Janardhanan with the bookie, Patel, where it is said those two men were planning for Sreesanth's second over of the match (if it was in the powerplay) to go for 14 runs. The sign that the fix was on would be a towel tucked into his trousers.

The next piece of evidence was the conversation between Sreesanth and Janardhanan, in which Janardhanan says he has Sreesanth's money. While neither man said in the conversation what the money was for, the BCCI said the "circumstantial evidence clearly indicates" that the money was part of the fix.

Sreesanth leaves the Patiala House court in Delhi in 2015 after charges against him were dropped

Sreesanth leaves the Patiala House court in Delhi in 2015 after charges against him were dropped © PTI

The third bit of evidence was the over itself, Sreesanth's second, in the powerplay, which went for 13 runs. He had a towel tucked into his trousers, as the inquiry report said.

There was also the confession to the Delhi police, which Sreesanth subsequently told Sawani about - though, as the Supreme Court would eventually record, Sreesanth admitted confessing "due to continuous torture and pressure".

The BCCI's disciplinary committee was unequivocal. "In view of the allegations of match-fixing and non-reporting of the offences, he is banned from playing or representing for life. He shall during this period not be entitled to be associated with any activities of the BCCI or its affiliates."

"This is a good sign, a very good sign. I am not coming back here by accident, I tell you." When he gets excited, Sreesanth's words run into each other and an entire sentence is a childlike mess of happiness. "You probably don't believe in things like this, but I do. This is a sign, I know it". His chauffeur-driven Jaguar turned into the Maharajas College Stadium, an athletics ground in central Kochi. "I have not been here in over six years, wow," he said as we arrived at the stadium.

Sreesanth got out of the car with purpose, strolled to the back, and as the boot popped up, he grabbed his cricket gear. His phone rang as he entered the stadium. The crowd of people standing near the front parted for him. He smiled back at them as he rushed through, the phone to his ear, listening more than he was talking. After two minutes he thanked the caller and hung up. As he reached the tunnel out to the ground, he stopped and looked at me.

Just over 20 years earlier he had walked into this stadium for the first time, responding to an ad in the local paper calling for local cricketers under 13 to turn up for a trial. He asked his father for the Rs 10 entry fee, but did not tell him what it was for, and made his way down to the stadium.

"There were maybe 900 kids here, all in whites. I was in coloured clothing, wearing shorts and slippers. They asked if I had whites. I said no, and they said you have to have whites for selection. It was a Saturday, and they said, if you want, you can come back tomorrow."

Clowns R Us: Sreesanth gets on his invisible pony after hitting a six off Andre Nel in Johannesburg in 2006

Clowns R Us: Sreesanth gets on his invisible pony after hitting a six off Andre Nel in Johannesburg in 2006 © AFP

The next day he went back in his school uniform, the only white clothes he had, and it was in this stadium, with a red cricket ball in his hand for the first time, that Sreesanth was discovered and started his journey to the top of world cricket.

The last ball of Sreesanth's first over, Adam Gilchrist smashed a four. The next over he bowled would change his life.

Sreesanth did stretch at the top of his run; he did have a towel tucked in his trousers. The first ball was to Shaun Marsh, short of a length and decent, and Marsh couldn't score off it. The second ball was full. Marsh mishit it, but got it through the gap at cover and it raced away to the boundary. The third ball was wide and full and Marsh mishit it again but couldn't beat the field. The fourth ball was a surprise short ball and Marsh hit it straight up in the air. He could have been caught but the ball lobbed out safely on the on side and they got a single.

After four balls of this over that was allegedly supposed to go for 14, five runs had been scored. Gilchrist was on strike for the fifth ball.

"I wanted to get a Gilchrist out, I have got him out a couple of times, I always wanted to get the big-name players out. I always targeted the Test players," Sreesanth said to me.

The fifth ball was a bit short and Gilchrist pulled it away to the ropes. Nine off five now. The only way to get to 14 legally was with a six. The sixth ball was wide and full again, Gilchrist dragged it straight past Sreesanth and it headed to the rope, another four. ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary records Sreesanth pulling his hands out of the way, though that is at times a natural reaction in a follow-through. That four took the over to 13 runs; Sreesanth's last three balls against Gilchrist were fours, one in the previous over, and then two in the over that ruined his life.

Paagal means crazy, or mad, in Hindi, or as Sreesanth explained to me, "mental". He heard this a lot as a kid, especially when, during the heat and humidity in the middle of the day, he would run as far as he could, until he could run no more.

Sreesanth was an army kid. His family often told him stories about how tough they were, how his uncle once had to trek through the jungle with only honey, a piece of bread and a little water for 48 hours. Sreesanth's training was always inspired by this. He would ride his bike to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, park it out the front, and then do laps outside the stadium until he was sick. "I am pretty sure I vomited right there, near those plants, one time," he said, pointing to a particular spot as we drove past.

He was an U-19 player at the time for Kerala, but wasn't allowed to train whenever he wanted. If he parked his bike out the front and then ran around the stadium, if anyone saw him, they would assume that he was part of the team.

Sreesanth with his wife, Bhuvneshwari Kumari, at a film screening in 2015. Note bulging biceps

Sreesanth with his wife, Bhuvneshwari Kumari, at a film screening in 2015. Note bulging biceps © AFP/Getty Images

This all ties into what a number of people - even former close friends - made of the behaviour of Sreesanth. No one I talked to wanted to do so on the record, but many did off it. At the height of his cricket fame, they said, Sreesanth often paid for things that he could have received for free. This is rare among humans in general, and more so cricketers, who become quite used to freebies. So when Sreesanth gave up on free flights and five-star hotels, others thought of it as suspicious behaviour, just because it was unusual.

It's also possible that Sreesanth was simply trying to show everyone what a big man he was - how he had made it and was above handouts and didn't need help from IPL owners. Sreesanth was the sort of person who even when he made it, was still faking it, just to impress others around him.

Sreesanth is famous, rich, and an easy target. Everyone loves the story of the sportsman gone wrong; it sells papers the world over. Even now, every 15 minutes there's some new OJ Simpson product on the market.

When Sreesanth was arrested, the Indian press went all in. Here was a controversial cricketer, an arrogant fool, getting his comeuppance. It was sexy and sleazy, allowed for tons of moral high ground, and the press loved every minute of reporting on the clown prince's fall.

The fact that Sreesanth was seen as paagal, actually helped when his cricket career was over. The love of his home state and being able to sing and dance became a career.

"When I played Australia or South Africa, they would say I was the showman. But maybe that showman really helped me give bread and butter to my kids," he told me.

His appearance fee for public events dropped by 80%, but it was still more than enough to live off, even before the movies came along, and most importantly, Sreesanth's fall humbled him.

"I came to learn who is real and fake, and the best lesson [is that] not everything that glitters is gold. I was arrogant and played cricket in a certain way. So maybe it was good because it helped me slow down, marry, have kids. I am now very happy in all parts of my life, the only thing that is missing is cricket."

On the way to nets at the Maharajas stadium, Sreesanth saw a group of elderly Olympians and posed with them for a photo. Shortly after, a father stopped to show Sreesanth his baby. Every couple of minutes someone came over to take a selfie. It did not feel like I was with a disgraced fixer; it felt like I was with the mayor of Kochi.

Reality set in abruptly. Sreesanth might have been stretching like a man who had endured a lifetime of strength and conditioning training, but these weren't proper cricket nets. We were tucked in behind the grandstand, and the wickets he was about to train on were not turf or even synthetic; they were concrete.

The team training was a local U-19 one, and they look excited that Sreesanth was there. Dressed in his ODI trousers and an Indian training shirt, Sreesanth gestured that he was ready to bowl and entered the rotation when he wanted to. No one complained.

What do you do when the Supreme Court sets aside your life ban? Take a selfie

What do you do when the Supreme Court sets aside your life ban? Take a selfie © Getty Images

A legendary local coach, Balachandran, watched on. He said he trained Sreesanth as a boy and was always impressed by him. "He was goal-orientated, and not just saying I want to play for India, but I need to achieve this goal this year, to play for India. He always takes the positives."

Sreesanth was only bowing at three-quarter pace, off a few steps. He made sure I noted that he wasn't going flat out. He didn't want the cricket world hearing he had lost a yard. But compared to the raw kids he was around, he looked the real deal. That high action was still there. He rushed the batsmen, he nipped a couple away, but he also encouraged the kids, especially the bowlers.

There was something weird about watching a man who had been to the top of the tree in all three formats playing against modified balls to handle the concrete wickets, as a family played a makeshift game of badminton a few yards away.

It took two years for Sreesanth to get his time in court, and since then his case has appeared in two other courts, including most recently, the Supreme Court. The ruling from the first - the Delhi trial court - in 2015 was emphatic in its dismissal of the charges laid against him, though, as mentioned, he was being tried under MCOCA, a law dealing with organised crime.

That was a lower court, and proceedings had little to no chance of prosecution, but the judge was scathing of the evidence presented against Sreesanth. The terms used to describe the evidence were: "not suggestive", "legal and competent over", "material discrepancies", "inadmissible", "not substantive evidence", and on the infamous towel and stretching, "S. Shreesanth regularly did so as generally other players all over the world, do."

It concluded:

"[T]here is not an iota of evidence to show that there was an agreement for payment of Rs. 60 lacs to S. Shreesanth for fixing an over by conceding 14+ runs in the match to be played on 09.05.2013.
"There is also no evidence whatsoever to show that an amount of Rs.10 lacs had been handed over to P. Jiju Janardhanan by the bookies, which in turn was handed over by him to S. Shreesanth. The conversation between P. Jiju Janardhanan and S. Sreesanth are innocuous and are not suggestive that any money came from the so-called spot-fixing fund."

In the 2013 IPL, 10% of the powerplay overs went for 13 runs or more. And for Sreesanth in his career, 14.4% of his powerplay overs went for 13 or more. Scoring 13 off a Sreesanth over was thus a one-in-seven chance, possibly higher with Gilchrist batting, since Gilchrist had already hit the only Sreesanth ball he faced for a boundary. Of course you also wouldn't expect a bowler of Sreesanth's quality to be bowling overs where he went for more than 13 that often.

"I was arrogant and played cricket in a certain way. I am now very happy in all parts of my life. The only thing that is missing is cricket" © Getty Images

The BCCI argued they had charged and punished Sreesanth under their anti-corruption code, not under MCOCA, and so the ban remained. They didn't need to hold Sreesanth to the same level of guilt as a court. The criminal charges against Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila were also dropped, though the BCCI did impose a life ban on Chandila.

In February 2017, Sreesanth sought to have his ban overturned in the Kerala High Court. In August it was. The BCCI appealed, and two months later the court overturned its own earlier judgement.

And finally came the Supreme Court, in 2018. Pleading Sreesanth's case there was Salman Khurshid, a former foreign minister of India. The highest court in the land, at last, provided a definitive sense of closure to the case, asking the BCCI in March 2019 to set aside the life ban and consider afresh a new quantum of punishment. The court, however, found no "violation in principles of natural justice" from the BCCI.

They did believe that Sreesanth had not "satisfactorily explained" the money received by Janardhanan, as heard in one of the telephone calls between the two. "The circumstantial evidence clearly indicates that this Rs. 10 Lacs is part of the amount deposited with Jiju Janardhan for influencing Sreesanth for underperforming in the second over of the match," the court order said.

But a life ban, the court believed, was too long. The BCCI had consistently said they made their decision because they have zero tolerance for cheating. The Supreme Court said: "Without considering the relevant provisions of Anti-Corruption Code, the disciplinary committee has imposed a lifetime ban on the appellant [Sreesanth] which sanction cannot be held to be in accordance with the Anti-Corruption Code itself."

The mitigating factors in the anti-corruption code the court said the disciplinary committee needed to take into account comprised: if the player had admitted his guilt, had a good disciplinary record, (the fact of) whether he had co-operated with the ACU enquiry, if the offence had actually affected the result of the match where the alleged spot-fixing took place, and whether the player had already been punished for the same offence under other laws.

The court pointed out that Sreesanth's conduct showed "obedience" to the BCCI from the time the life ban was imposed, and that he did not challenge the ban initially but only when he was denied permission to play in the Scotland Premier League.

"[A] zero tolerance approach cannot dilute consideration of relevant factors while imposing sanction," and so, "maximum punishment could not be sustained," the court said. That meant the duration of the ban had to be revisited.

That was left to the BCCI ombudsman Justice (retired) DK Jain, who is also the board's ethics officer. Justice Jain concluded that he was "convinced" there were a few mitigating factors in Sreesanth's favour that the disciplinary committee ought to have paid attention to. At 36, he concluded, Sreesanth's best years as a player and specifically as a fast bowler "may already be over". He felt a ban spanning seven years - lasting till September 14, 2020 - "will meet the ends of justice."

Sreesanth's parents are interviewed at their home in Ernakulam in 2011 after he made it to the India World Cup squad

Sreesanth's parents are interviewed at their home in Ernakulam in 2011 after he made it to the India World Cup squad © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

And so it is that from the middle of September next year, Sreesanth is free to return.

Even after looking long and hard at the evidence in Sreesanth's case, I don't know for certain whether he fixed this over or not. Is it that he was guilty and there just wasn't enough evidence, or the right kind of laws, to punish him? Or is he innocent, and just had a friend who was trying to make some cash off him? There are only a handful of people in the world who know the truth, and the rest of us will never know.

A part of me wants to praise the BCCI for being so hardline, because clinching evidence - as for almost all match-fixing cases - is so hard to get hold of. Anti-corruption units are not the CIA, or even Interpol, and if even 5% of fixing was caught, they would be doing an incredible job. That they acted so quickly and decisively is admirable. But did they have enough evidence not only to find someone guilty but also to hand out a lifetime ban?

When the Kerala High Court overturned its first decision, Sreesanth tweeted: "This is the worst decision ever.. special rule for me? what about real culprits? What about chennai super kings? And what about Rajasthan?"

What about them indeed? The Chennai Super Kings, who would also be caught in the fallout, and the Rajasthan Royals were suspended for only two years. N Srinivasan, who owned CSK, would not step down from his BCCI role despite his own son-in-law being central to the case. Zero tolerance, it appeared, was not for everyone.

And of course zero tolerance is really no deterrent anyway, as it won't, and hasn't, stopped fixing. It sounds good and makes people feel better, but it won't stop corruption.

It is also not uniform. So far, life bans had been for those who got others involved (Danish Kaneria, Saleem Malik and Hansie Cronje). Sreesanth had not been accused of that; Salman Butt, who was, and was found guilty, got a ten-year ban (with five years suspended) and has been back playing for a few years. Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir also ended up serving five-year bans for a fix they actually pulled off.

Sreesanth has already lost his international career, missed years of top-level IPL earnings, been abused and mocked, and also been - briefly - to jail. He has been punished.

As Sreesanth batted in the nets, I realised I had a chance to sneak in a couple of balls to a Test player. I waited for my slot in the rotation and rolled in with my slow and ordinary legspin. Sreesanth treated each ball with more respect than it deserved: of all the things he did in my company, I suspected this the most. As he finished up, I took some photos. There was some rubbish on one side of the nets, and I went behind it to get a photo of him batting.

Sreesanth walked over to me.

"You're taking photos to show how far I have fallen - from Test cricket to this."

I smiled. He laughed.

Sreesanth has been playing hero most of his life, to his friends, to cricketer-starved Kerala, in the movies, and he has been an occasional superhero for India.

Here in these sub-standard nets, against a few local kids, with rubbish blowing around in the wind, you had a man trying to make an against-all-odds comeback. If you think he's guilty, he's paying his penance, trying to get back to the thing he threw away, when the easy option is to star in movies. If you think he's innocent, he's the man who has been wronged, hoping for one chance to get back to what he was born to do.

Sreesanth waits in line to vote in 2016 - the year he was also the BJP candidate from Trivandrum

Sreesanth waits in line to vote in 2016 - the year he was also the BJP candidate from Trivandrum © Getty Images

For most of his life he has acted the hero, but attempting to come back is probably the most heroic he has ever been. And it's still weird thinking of him as a hero because he was so often a buffoon on the field, and I made that trip to Kochi because he had been accused of a crime. But whether he was here of his own making, or the mistakes and vendettas of others, the fact that he hadn't given up, and was still training for what looked - and still looks - an unlikely comeback said something about the man he was.

After his ban was reduced, I sent Sreesanth a message asking what his future plans were.

"I wil make a comeback."

"Will surly give my very best."

"Will be starting first class from next season."

"Sep 2020."

"One great season and I will be back."

"Age is just a number."

"So I don't need worry."

"It's all about believing in my ability nd giving it my best shot."

"As long as I am breathing I'm not gonna give up."

"As I haven't played so much cricket is last 6..7 years haven't taken the toll..so I am sure my body still have it in me for next 7 years."

"So will give it all I got nd get many many many more wickets and score lots of runs for sure."

When I first met him, I thought the idea he might play again was ludicrous. Even now, I think it's incredible that Kerala would pick a 37-year-old after a seven-year ban for match-fixing.

But I am also reminded of what happened the day I left Sreesanth at the Maharajas College Stadium.

As I waiting out in front for my Uber, a bunch of dogs came by, chasing a rat.

There were three dogs, big and mean. The rat sprinted for survival. The dogs dived in, trying to corner it, barked loudly, and chased it from one side of the road to another, and then back again. The whole thing was chaotic, brutal and thrilling. I got completely obsessed with the tactics of the dogs, and the speed of the rat. I'm not sure if it was just because I didn't want to see the animal die, or if the vicious behaviour of the dogs freaked me out, but after a while I started to hope the rat made it. Eventually they went off down the street, and I lost interest.

A short time later one of the dogs strolled past with what looked like a rat in its mouth. I had no idea if it was the same rat.

When my driver arrived, he asked, "Why have you come to Kerala? It's not for a holiday, no?"

I shook my head.

"I'm a writer. I came to talk to Sreesanth."

"Oh, wow."

"Are you a cricket fan?" I asked.

"No, but everyone knows Sreesanth. He does films now. Cricket banished him. But I hear he will be back."

"How do you know that?"

"Here, you always come back. Here, nothing is ever finished, so I think he will come back."

The rat crossed my mind. This was not a movie. Real life is messy, and there are no clear endings. Of course, maybe the rat is Malayalee, and they fight. And in India, nothing ever is finished.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. Nagraj Gollapudi is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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