S Sreesanth was the big catch in the high-profile spot-fixing case. © BCCI

May 16, 2013, changed the face of Indian cricket forever.

It was on this date that S Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila – all three playing for Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2013 – were arrested by the Delhi Police in Mumbai for allegedly fulfilling promises made to bookmakers.

Sreesanth was the big catch in the high-profile spot-fixing case, and everyone viewed the once-promising Indian paceman as the villain of the piece. The on-field antics and off-field parties didn’t help his cause, although hard evidence nailing him, or the other two, was not made publicly available. Of course, there was the no-small matter of Sreesanth confessing to the claims before clarifying that he did so under duress, but ever since, he has maintained his innocence.

Fast forward to August 7, 2017, and the Kerala High Court lifted the life ban on Sreesanth, a decision that the BCCI are set to appeal against.

The man with 169 international wickets, a handful of movie appearances, a failed political run as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate in the Thiruvananthapuram Central constituency, and a cameo in a dance show, shared his innermost thoughts with Wisden India. Excerpts:

What do you make of the BCCI’s intention to appeal against the Kerala High Court’s decision?
I am very hurt by what is happening. I have been through too much in my career. You tell me, won’t you feel hurt if you’re at the receiving end of such treatment? I said what I said on Twitter in a fit of rage.

The very next day, I tweeted and said I was sorry.

I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. That has never been my intention. I have always respected the BCCI and I still do. It’s just that having been through so much I feel that me, my family and my supporters deserve this break. I have worked relentlessly all these years without ever naming or pulling anyone up. I have kept quiet about it and handled the situation with a lot of dignity.

They said I had to serve my time and I did. That too, despite never being proven guilty. Not once have they provided me with the facts of the case. If they feel like I am involved, I insist that they make it public. They have never proved that I was involved in spot-fixing in any way. Even criminals serving a life-ban get early bails, and those are cases that involve far greater crimes. When I haven’t even committed the crime, what’s the justice in me serving a life ban?

Some people who have been convicted of fixing have come back to play. Why is the law different for me? Despite all this, all I am asking for is to play league cricket. I am not saying I need to be playing international cricket right away. If I prove my fitness and if I prove that I still have the skills, I don’t see why I cannot play for India. That’s all I want. Justice.

How was it for you and your family during that phase?

"When this fixing thing happened, they put me and my family through hell." © Getty Images

“When this fixing thing happened, they put me and my family through hell.” © Getty Images

Oh my god, it was hell. My family is very well respected in my neighbourhood. There are some very educated people in my family, while I took to playing cricket. When I won the World Cups (2007 World T20 and the 2011 World Cup), they all put me on their shoulders and treated me with such respect. All of a sudden, when this fixing thing happened, they put me and my family through hell. My father and my mother couldn’t even go to a temple peacefully. My niece couldn’t go to school because of everything they said about me. It was tough times. I don’t wish even my enemies go through a phase like this in their lives.

This is one of the reasons why I want to come back, because my family and my friends stood by me during this tough time. I think they deserve to be repaid for their faith in me. I have made some mistakes in my life, but fixing is not something I would ever be involved in. I went to jail for 27 days and my people broke down when I went through that. I didn’t think I was ever going to get out. Even there, I was only thinking of when I could get back and play because I believed in our justice system.

Do you feel like you were made the scapegoat? If so, why do think anyone would target you in particular?
I really don’t know. I think one of the mistakes I made in my career was that I didn’t make too many friends in the dressing room. I spent more time with my friends. I was close to a few people but never too close. I wish I knew better then. I should’ve spent more time with my teammates, going out with them and all of that. But the fact is I am the same with everyone. I’m no different with someone coming into the team for their first game than with someone who has been around for a long time. I see how that could be a problem now. I’m not used to sucking up to people. That’s not how I like to live my life and that hasn’t changed, but I am more careful about the people I call my real friends. There were a lot of fake friends around me, and having seen this side to life, I have walked away from all of them.

THE CONTROVERSIAL SECOND OVER
(Match 55: Kings XI Punjab v Rajasthan Royals, May 9, 2013, PCA IS Bindra Stadium, Mohali)
3.1: 0 runs, Marsh cuts a short ball to point.
3.2: 4 runs, Marsh drives the full ball to the extra cover fence.
3.3: 0 runs, Marsh drives it to cover.
3.4: 1 run, Marsh gets a top-edge attempting the pull; ball falls safely at midwicket
3.5: 4 runs, Gilchrist gets on top of the bounce and pulls the short ball to the midwicket fence
3.6: 4 runs, Gilchrist slaps a slower ball past the bowler; he doesn’t middle it but Sreesanth can’t get his hand down in time for the catch.

Is there no truth in the accusations?
Obviously not. But okay, let me explain… If you have a close friend who you are seen with all the time, and that friend works out deals behind your back, people will think you’re involved right? That’s exactly what happened! I knew Jiju (Janardhan) from when I was in the MRF Pace Foundation when I was 19 years old. I was as close to him as you’d be with your childhood friend. I will never turn around and say I didn’t know him because I played with him for my club and he also played for Kerala. It would be a lie if I said I didn’t know him and I don’t want to lie about anything. People assumed that I was involved because the people I knew were involved. Okay fine, even if that is the case, prove it to me. Show me that I have done it. They’re just saying that I fixed matches and all that, so why don’t they just go public with the information they have? People should know the truth irrespective, right? I am ready to serve time if they prove me guilty.

They said the second over was the contentious one. That over, I supposedly took money to give away 14-plus runs. I gave away five runs off the first four balls. The fifth ball was a great cover-drive (pull, actually) by Adam Gilchrist to the boundary and the next ball he hit it past me. I nearly took the catch. So if I did hold on to that catch, then what? Then I would’ve given away just nine runs, right? Also, they said Jiju apparently said I would either keep an arm-band or a towel or the vermilion or something like that. I used to do all that because I love Allan Donald. I have done that before too, you know. I would even wear plenty of zinc oxide on my face, like Donald would.

Does that mean those matches were fixed too? Is it a crime to be superstitious? I believed that wearing those things would help me when I am going through a bad phase in my bowling. In fact, in the first over, I asked Kumar Dharmasena (the umpire) if it was okay if I kept a towel on me. Surely the stump microphones picked that up. I did that only because it made me feel like Donald. Why would someone fix for Rs 10 lakh? At least if you’re accusing me, say Rs 10 crore or something. Why would I jeopardise my career, my life for Rs 10 lakh? That’s why I believed I would be acquitted because it’s all too silly to be true. And yet somehow they made it a water-tight case and ruined my life. The Delhi Police caught hold of me on some suspicious tip-off and they framed me.

How did you manage to handle all these accusations for so long? How hard was it emotionally?
I knew I had to stay strong for my family. I knew what they were going through, so I couldn’t break down at that time. I kept it all in and worked out a way to be logical about it. I am an emotional person, but I have become better at handling emotions and directing them productively. Also, I am a very positive person by nature, so I wouldn’t let something like this push me into depression or anything.

I fought it every step of the way and handled it head-on. I made some genuine friends along the way, people who were not fake. My stint as an actor helped me a lot and so did being a part of Jhalak Dhikhhla Jaa (Season 7). I was able to direct my energies productively. Also, I thank the BJP for giving me a seat. Politics helped me take my mind off all that was happening. It also helped me read people better. Assessing people and keeping the right people around you, I have understood, is the most important thing. If it wasn’t for these distractions, I don’t know what I would’ve done.

How have you managed to stay fit?

S Sreesanth

“When this fixing thing happened, they put me and my family through hell.” © Getty Images

From a very young age, I was made to understand that your body is your temple and you need to worship it. In 2012, I had serious surgeries on both my toes. Six surgeries on each toe. I wanted to quit around that time, but I kept doing everything I could away from the spotlight to return to playing. I knew how to keep my body in shape every step of the way. Now, the acting has helped me stay in proper shape. Of course, I am a lot bigger now than I was before but that’s because the movies needed me to be a bit bigger.

Still, I am as fit as anyone in the Indian team right now. I am built more like an Australian now. The only question is if I can bowl long spells for four days at a stretch. I am the type to push my body through a lot, so I know I can and it’s only a matter of time before I hit Test-match fitness. I built an indoor facility, a 25-yard strip, on my third floor and I bowl there every day. I try and bowl as fast as possible with a short run-up. So my abilities are very much there still.

Once again, all I am asking of the BCCI is to let me play league cricket so I can prove to my people that I am not done. I do not want to be remembered as someone who was good once and then got involved in fixing and never woke up from it. I cannot be made the poster child for match-fixing when I haven’t fixed a single game in my life. I do not want my children to remember me as some criminal. They know the truth but if the world paints a picture long enough, kids will believe it or at least question it at some point. At least for their sake, I hope I can return to playing cricket.

Why return to cricket when your life outside of it is doing well?
All I ever wanted to do was play cricket. That’s all I know. I don’t know how to play politics. I don’t know how to handle different people differently and all that. I go out there and perform. I put my heart on my sleeve and I give my country and any team I play for everything I have. I don’t cheat. These distractions are nice for now and honestly, they’re more for me to earn for my family. They’re not a full-time deal. I cannot live without cricket and that’s why I am fighting for it. I will continue to fight for it until I can realise my dream. No one can stop a man from dreaming and going after it.

Yes, I can just as well say enough to cricket and stop, but why should I? I was ill-treated for no fault of mine, so why should I take it lying down and leave the one thing I have been passionate about since I learnt to walk? No one has the right to take that away from me. I trust the BCCI will not do that to me and make me some sort of an example, but if they do, I will fight. Honestly, I don’t want to take them on because I respect them for everything they have done for me. They gave me the chance to win two World Cups for India. That’s honestly a blessing. All I want now is to be allowed to play so I can go on to play while my body allows me to.

Ashish Nehra is my idol because at 37, he’s doing better than he did when he started off. He’s like fine wine, just getting better with age. And I think I can be the same. Everybody knows that an athlete is at his best between the ages of 26 and 36. That’s the window we all have, and that’s why I think I have a few years left in me. At least I deserve a chance to prove my abilities. If I don’t then I’ll walk away knowing that I gave it everything but to throw me away like this is an injustice. Also, what does the BCCI have to be scared of? I am a 34-year-old fast bowler who hasn’t played cricket in nearly five years. All I want to do is play some league cricket and call it all off if I don’t go any further. Does that sound so dangerous?

THE SREESANTH SAGA
2013: Arrested on May 16. Gets bail on July 11. BCCI imposes life ban on September 13

2015: July 25: Delhi’s Patiala House Court drops the charges against everyone accused in the case, including Sreesanth, due to insufficient evidence under the MCOCA Act, a special law passed by the Maharashtra state government to tackle organised crime syndicates and terrorism.

BCCI refuses to lift the ban, maintaining that their findings during interrogations in 2013 by the board’s then anti-corruption unit chief Ravi Swani, were enough.

2017: January 24: Sreesanth’s plea for a no-objection certificate to play for Glenrothes Cricket Club in the Scottish league is shot down by the BCCI.
August 7: Sreesanth, who had approached the Kerala High Court after the BCCI refused to remove his life ban in 2015, was given a reprieve after the court set aside the life ban, saying “it’s a denial of natural justice”.
August 11: Reports emerge that the BCCI will appeal against the Kerala High Court’s judgement.

How let-down do you feel – do you feel it will be difficult for you to trust or believe in people again?
No. I take a lot of time to get close to people nowadays. I have also worked a lot on my anger. I used to be the type who either gets very angry, or very sad, or very happy in a very short period of time. I have learnt to keep it all in control now. I don’t know who is responsible for all the accusations and why I am being targeted because all I’ve ever wanted was to go out and bowl. Yes, I am aggressive, but isn’t that what fast bowling is all about? Isn’t going out there and giving everything what cricket is about? I can’t possibly be cast away because I am a vocal person right? There are a lot of people who are as vocal and as theatric as me in the team who enjoy great positions. I don’t know man… I wish I could tell you who, why and all of that but I just don’t know.

Even recently, some of the commentators came after me and I don’t know why. They’ve spoken highly of people who have come back and started playing cricket even though they’ve been found guilty. How do they know what I am going through? Do they think it’s wise to say these things on record to people? Don’t they know that this could make them look silly at the end of it all?

Hell, you know I don’t wish bad for them also. I am truly sorry for everyone I have hurt physically, spiritually and mentally from the time I was a child. I am sorry, and I don’t want to make any excuses for that. I never meant any harm to anyone. I could’ve said a lot in a fit of rage but I have never meant it. I have always loved people and I continue to love those close to me without holding back on my emotions. They deserve an honest human being and I am being as honest as I can be.

What happens if the BCCI does give you permission to play?
I will forever be grateful to them. I am willing to put everything behind and just focus on my cricket. I just wish to follow my dreams and make my family proud. I do not want to keep reliving this. I need to make new memories and this will help me do that. I have seen too much in my life. I just want to be happy. Is that too much to ask?