Sachin Baby: “Sreesanth is always a leader for all of us”

There’s probably no one else more eagerly awaiting Shanthakumaran Sreesanth’s comeback than Kerala’s discarded captain, Sachin Baby. Seven years since being banned from cricket, Sreesanth was named in the list of probables for the upcoming Ranji season by the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) last week.

Sreesanth qualifies to play from September when his ban ends fully and Kerala, and especially Sachin Baby, is hoping to see him make a roaring comeback. At 37, he is past the prime of a fast bowler’s career, but having faced him in the nets enough times, Sachin asserts that nothing has changed about Sreesanth’s bowling abilities.

The skipper of the state until the end of the last Ranji season, Baby shares a special rapport with Sreesanth, one that transcends an ordinary relationship between two teammates. “We have been practicing together for so many years, even when he was banned. We either practice at his home or in one of his private academies,” Sachin said. “He is bowling superbly even now. Even when he wasn’t playing, Sree was very conscious of his fitness. He was working really hard. I would say our own players in the Ranji squad weren’t training as hard as Sreesanth did in the time he wasn’t playing.”

S. Sreesanth

Though the final list of official players for the season is yet to come, it is fairly clear that KCA and head coach Tinu Yohannan are keen to get Sreesanth back into the mix as soon as he is available. Baby, who has been training with him even during the pandemic, certifies that Sreesanth’s fitness is never a question mark while adding that they might still want to see if he is match-ready. “Strength-wise he is pretty good. His match-readiness is a question mark. Once Covid-19 has subsided and the rainy season is done, we would likely play some cricket and I am sure Sreesanth will be raring and ready to go by then,” Sachin says.

Kerala cricket has been going through a period of turmoil with the departure of Sandeep Warrier to Tamil Nadu on top of the disastrous Ranji season in 2019/20 that saw the team relegated to Elite C Group. A change in reins at the head coach level has, however, sat well with most players as Tinu Yohannan, the new coach, is no stranger to the setup.

“Yohannan was there with us in the first season when we qualified. He knows the players inside out. From 2014, he has consistently been part of the setup. It will be easy for him to communicate as he knows players and their strengths. I think given the challenge we have [of getting back to Elite B] Yohannan’s role will be important,” Baby explains, adding that Yohannan is also eagerly awaiting the return of the former India pacer.

With true wickets expected this time around for the home games, Kerala will want to go back to their traditional strength – pace bowling. Even in the absence of their strike force, Sandeep, Kerala will be bolstered by the fact that Sreesanth is available for the season to guide the younger crop of pacers. “Sree [Sreesanth] will manage the bowling group. He knows to motivate the bowlers. That space is his for the upcoming season. We have Basil Thampi, MD Nidheesh, KM Asif, Fazil Fanoos, and Abhishek Mohan also in the pace-bowling group and they will benefit immensely from Sree,” Sachin said while adding that the 37-year senior pacer is a leader to them all.

“He’s always a leader for all of us, a big brother kind of person for everyone in the team. When he was playing we were all too young. So he is a senior figure in Kerala cricket and someone we look up to. Obviously he will take responsibility even if he isn’t the skipper.” The ruckus surrounding Sreesanth’s comeback has heightened since he was named in the list of probables, but if indications from within the camp are anything to go by, the former India pacer is expected to not only play in the upcoming season, but also be a leader of sorts in the setup, even if he may not be handed the captaincy reins.

Baby explained that Sreesanth had been involved in Kerala cricket even during the period he was banned and credited his inputs for aiding their maiden surge to Ranji Trophy semi-finals in 2018/19 under his own leadership. “He [Sreesanth] has constantly been in touch with me and the team. Whenever I come to Kochi, I go to his home and we speak on cricket a lot. He used to talk to me about Kerala cricket, how to go about seasons, and how to set a goal as a team. I would go back and share it with the members in the team. Even if absent, his hand was always there in the team. Even in the two years, we made it to the quarterfinals and semi-finals, his inputs had a major role,” Sachin says.

Kerala is expected to start the season under Jalaj Saxena’s leadership. The all-rounder was anointed skipper after Baby was removed from the post following the poor season Kerala had last year. On his part, though, Baby is happy to take everything in his stride and remain positive.

“So under my captaincy, Kerala qualified to the Ranji semi-finals, did well in Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament. When things go wrong, it obviously comes down to the captain. Nobody else will take responsibility. I try to take everything in a positive manner. I am not worried about losing the captaincy. Even when the players revolted against me, I wasn’t too tense. They were senior players who went against [me] at the time. But they all personally came and apologized later. It was a challenge for me as a captain at that time, but once we qualified for the semis, the noises died down,” Sachin explained, touching upon the incident where a few players, including Sanju Samson, were fined and some others suspended for showing dissent against his leadership.

However, with Sreesanth’s return, the group is expected to become more united, as Baby himself points out, citing his ability to motivate players and inspire them towards success. The return of the controversial pacer could just be the spark that Kerala cricket needs right now to lift them up from the abyss they found themselves in during the last season.

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