Once dashing sports stars, Vivek Vasudevan Nair and Sreesh TK had to retire their jerseys and pull on uniforms to become more successful.
About 15-20 years ago, when Vivek was a promising national basketball player and Sreesh a volleyball international, they wouldn't have hoped to discover their niche in anything but sports.
Yet, now in their forties, the duo has mastered a whole new ball game -- anti-smuggling operations.
On the eve of the nation's Republic Day, Vivek and Sreesh were announced as winners of the 2021 Presidential Medals for 'Specially Distinguished Record of Service'.
While Sreesh has been recognised for his excellence in intelligence gathering, Vivek thwarted multiple narcotic and gold smuggling activities, including the 2020 Thiruvananthapuram gold smuggling case that led to the unceremonious exit of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's principal secretary M Sivasankar.
That the duo had dissimilar paths to success adds to the excitement. As a superintendent with the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Sreesh has flown under the radar, gathering and processing information that would eventually lead to clamping down on the baddies.
The DRI team in Kochi, led by Sreesh seized at least 203 kg of gold last year alone.
The tally is a lot bigger when extrapolated across his service period that started in 2004. But he's too modest to spill the numbers.
"The last four years, we have been working behind the curtains. Actually, in my field, we don't show our faces (smiles)," Sreesh tells Onmanorama.
On the contrary, Vivek, superintendent in the Customs and Central Goods & Services Tax Zone, has been in the thick of action, leading raids and intercepting smuggling deals.
"I don't fear for my life," says Vivek. "As a teenager, I was inspired by Kargil war hero Colonel Viswanathan. Since then, I have been motivated to do service for my country."
Vivek, who was initially "part of the DRI family" has been a proper action junkie since joining the Customs Preventive in 2017.
It was not until his superiors recommended him for the President's Medal that Vivek says he learned of his service haul, which is significant.
The 6'5'' former hoopster has been involved in no fewer than 250 service tax cases, where tax evasion amounted to Rs 300-400 crore. Besides, he was part of operations that clamped down on "Rs 100 cr worth narcotic deals and over 300 kg gold smuggling attempts".
The most famous of those cases included concerning the gold smuggling racket at the Thiruvananthapuram Airport in July 2020, in which the diplomatic channel was used, kicking off a political storm that even shook the chief minister's office. Vivek was the investigating officer in that case.
Both Sreesh and Vivek, however, miss their playing days.
As a setter during his volleyball days, Sreesh was a master schemer, who smartly passed the ball for his colleagues to finish with aplomb. "Now I pass information," he says chuckling.
The 44-year-old represented the country twice in beach volleyball in World Police Games. "That was in 2001 and 2003, I think in Spain and Sweden."
Besides, winning a national title for Kerala he also played several years for senior India alongside Tom Joseph, one of the finest spikers the country has produced.
On the other hand, Vivek was quite a charmer, in the true sense of the word. For years he finely balanced basketball and modelling. While he captained the Kerala state team to a couple of silver medals in national championships, he also walked the ramp. "I was a showstopper at a fashion show with Kangana Ranaut," recollects the 42-year-old.
Even after a serious knee injury curtailed his basketball career, Vivek kept keen on modelling.
Then COVID happened and both former sports stars got real busy as the pandemic-imposed lockdown and subsequent period witnessed a spike in smuggling attempts.
Vivek has shifted focus to narcotic cases and Sreesh has been gathering intelligence as always.
In a sense, both Sreesh and Vivek are still active as sportspersons, the only difference is they are now playing spoilsport for the bad guys.