Square peg in a round hole

Many hotel lobbies still contain a piano, but these days they tend to be hidden away in a dusty corner. There aren’t as many decent piano players around as there used to be and even fewer prepared to tickle the ivories in an unseeing, uncaring audience more concerned with the fact that the air-conditioning doesn’t work or that they’ve been charged R160 for a packet of cashews from the minibar. And R30 for a bottle of water. Small one.

There are still some places in the world which represent a throwback a different era, however. Some grand old hotels in far off places like Kuala Lumpur, Cuba and Kenya still have live piano players – usually around sundowners time – but there aren’t too many in South Africa. At least, not that I’ve stayed in.

Yet there it was, the unmistakable sound of real piano music. Quite good, too. And the man on the piano stool? Shantakumaran Sreesanth. India’s ‘wild man’ fast bowler is a lot more than meets the eye. Polite and respectful to a fault off the field, he was criticised early in his career for lacking the ‘temperament’ to be a fast bowler and found himself virtually goaded into behaving the way he does on the field today.

He’s undoubtedly naturally eccentric but, by trying to play a ‘character’ on the field rather than himself he sometimes finds himself confused and distracted by what his cricketing personality is supposed to do next rather than his real life character.

Sreesanth loves the arts and dabbles enthusiastically in cultures and religions from all over the world. He has so many rituals and superstitions on the field that sometimes forgets which order to do them in – or when to do them. But he is a burstingly proud Indian and a hard worker prepared to bowl until he drops.

There are plenty of ‘hard men’ to tell you that international cricket is no place for the weak or faint-hearted. The more eccentric you are, the more you will attract attention. And if you answer back, then you’d better be prepared to look after yourself.

Sreesanth was genuinely shocked by the things that were said to him by the South African players on the 2006 tour. Absolutely nothing was ‘off-limits’ – his ability (or lack of it) was easy to cope with but he found derogatory and demeaning references to his faith and culture harder to handle.

So he gave a bit back this time, much of it audible through the stump microphones. It was harsh, but also witty. None of it was gutter talk.

Tears of rage rose into his eyes when he read a newspaper report before the third Test which claimed that he had made sexual remarks about players wives and mothers. He was beside himself with anger. He swore on all that was holy and sacred to him that he had never, and would never stoop so low. The worst he had called the Proteas players, he said, was “arrogant.” He was overheard telling one senior player: “I used to have respect for you, I thought you were a legend, but after 2006 I realised you are nothing but a disgrace.”

So, in the spirit of the Moses Mabhida occasion and the historic commemoration of 150 years of close Indo/South Africa relations, let’s hope that Sreesanth can be appreciated for the colour and skill he brings to the game, if not by the Protea players then at least by the rest of us.

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