“Our first match will be at the Wankhede stadium where I had played my last India match, so life is coming full circle,” he says. “Kerala has never won this tournament but we have a very good team now. I am excited to be part of this unit and also play under the guidance of coach Tinu Yohannan. Both Tinu and Sanju Samson have said they want to gift the trophy to me as I make a comeback. But I am not looking only at Mushtaq Ali but also to win Irani and Ranji. If I do well, I will get more opportunities. I have been getting inquiries for IPL, too, and I have to make sure that I am fit and bowling well,” he says.
Talking of fitness, he lets on that in the last year and a half, his body weight has dropped to 82kg from 106kg. “When I was not playing, I acted in a couple of Bollywood movies. I bulked up to get the kind of body these characters required. Routine of an actor and player are different but both need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, in sports, you need to do a lot of explosive training and I have been in touch with the leading strength and conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan. After seeing my new videos, coach T A Sekhar has told me that it was like watching the Sree of 2007 World Cup,” he says.
Enthusiasm apart, how does the 37-year-old cricketer realistically fancy his chances at the highest level? “It is true that it is the kind of age when there is nothing much left to achieve in sports. But then, someone like Leander Paes won a grand slam at 42. Roger Federer is another case in point,” he argues, going on to cite the examples of Misbah-ul-Haq, Brad Hogg, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid to prove his point that it is not beyond a cricketer to do well at his age. But unlike all of them, he is a fast bowler, one reminds him. “As a fast bowler, I will be creating history but then, I like to create history. I am not just looking at the season ahead but at the next three years. My real goal is to be in the 2023 World Cup team and win the cup,” he says.
He has been bowling and bowling at the nets he has set up upstairs, he lets on. Does he have the pace now to surprise top batsmen? “I am bowling in the 135-145 mph range. I will bowl 140-plus when it is needed. I can still wake up at 3 am and bowl those outswingers, inswingers and yorkers. After all, any guy under a helmet is just a batsman, whatever the commentators may say about him. My run-up will be shorter but I will be more accurate. And more in control of my emotions,” he says.
Will he try to get back to the movies, reality shows or dabble in politics again? “When cricket was taken away, I had to do these things to feed my family. I did Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa for six weeks, came runner-up in Bigg Boss and did Fear Factor. It was an amazing experience. I took those opportunities, learned and earned from them,” he says.
He goes on to narrate how the worst day of his life was when the investigators picked him up for “no reason”. “But now, I don’t want to blame anyone but concentrate on the task at hand.” He remembers how he had met his future dad-in-law Hirendra Singh Shekhawat for the first time in the court, after he was slapped with all those charges, and he reassured him, “Himmat nahin harna”.
“After becoming the father of a girl, I realised what it takes to be like that and to send one’s beautiful daughter all the way from Bhopal to Kochi to be somebody’s wife. It would be an understatement to say that (wife) Bhubaneswari has been a pillar of strength. These seven years have taught me many things, including being a good son, husband, dad, friend. Every exit creates an entry somewhere else,” he signs off.