The chips may be down, but 29-year-old paceman Lakshmipathy Balaji prefers to see the sunny side of life
Lakshmipathy Balaji can see motes of light in darkness. His cricket is driven by a passion that remains undiminished.
“I am no quitter,” he declares. Balaji goes on, “Each time when some force pushes me back, I return stronger.”
He still flashes an affable, spontaneous smile that had the prettiest girls among a gathering of university students in Lahore screaming his name during India's historic tour across the border in 2004.
The goodness in the man shines through. Balaji can so easily cut across barriers, connect and create bonds.
Underneath the charming exterior, he is resilient. When career threatening injury clouds loomed, he found hope and sunshine in the arena.
He can still leave the stumps in a shambles as Shane Watson discovered in an Indian Premier League game at the Eden Gardens last year. A mean outswinger opened up the Australian opener before rearranging the woodwork.
After the game where Balaji bowled a match-turning spell for Kolkata Knight Riders against Rajasthan Royal, the legendary Sunil Gavaskar walked up to Balaji and said to him, “You bowled a jaffa, man.”
“He is such a great batsman and these words meant a lot to me. They indicated that I was still good enough,” Balaji recalls. Indeed, the fight in the man is immense. He can still pick wickets that matter, counter-attack the bowling when the chips are down and field with a tiger-like resolve.
Commitment, the motif
Commitment has been the motif of his journey's myriad hues. He can be aggressive with his body language and soft with his words on the field of play, and enjoys shouldering responsibility.
The three qualities that underline Balaji's cricket are, “courage, skill and intelligence,” he says. Last season, he bowled with increased pace and accuracy although this was not always reflected in his tally of wickets. Importantly, he became better rounded technically.
“I am running in quicker, my steps are shorter and my delivery stride is taller. Consequently, I release the ball from a greater height,” says Balaji. The combination of his tall frame and a high-arm action is extracting greater bounce from the surface.
Earlier, his legs were spread wider at the delivery stride and the ball was being delivered from a lower trajectory. And his run-up had lacked momentum.
There have been a few other positive developments. Reveals Balaji, “Earlier, I bowled too far outside the off-stump, not making the batsmen play my outswingers. Now, I get the ball to move from close to the off-stump and this has enhanced my bowling. And I pitch the ball up a lot more.”
Balaji emphasises the value of “strength and speed in his running, a strong delivery stride and a flowing follow through.”
The 29-year-old paceman also highlights the significance of a strong and uptight wrist position, something which the Pakistani pace legend Wasim Akram stressed as the bowling coach of KKR.
Says Balaji, who is comfortable with his new franchise, “Akram bhai encourages you to think and express yourself and captain Gautam Gambhir allows you to set your own field that enables you to grow as a bowler.'
Of course, Chennai and Tamil Nadu are still close to his heart. “My family, my friends and well-wishers, my team-mates, and the administrators have given me so much. I want to be in a Tamil Nadu team that triumphs in a Ranji Trophy side at least once,” he says.
The failure to do so leaves him bitterly disappointed. “I have been in two Ranji finals. We have the best league, the best infrastructure and some very good talent. But we lack something mentally during crunch situations. We miss the sort of tenacity under pressure that a side such as Mumbai has during the big games. It boils down to mind. We need to change our attitude and be ruthless when we have the opposition down.”
Balaji believes he has it in him to represent India again. An attacking wicket-taking bowler, his 27 scalps in eight Tests include one five and two four-wicket innings hauls.
“Each time I step on the field, I dream about playing for India. There is no greater honour. In fact, Akram bhai saw me bowl at the nets and was surprised that I was not going to represent my country.”
The fire still burns in Balaji. You count this fighter out at your own peril.