Setting the PACE

THE LANKY young man gazes down the concrete pitch, and then, turning to a stocky figure beside him, says, "It's still there, isn't it?"

Time flies taking the events and the protagonists with it, but certain things remain where they are. Like that white square on the concrete pitch.

Each time India paceman Laxmipathy Balaji peers at the markings on the surface, he is reminded of his roots — it was here that it all began.

As a 16-year-old, he would cycle from his home in Choolaimedu to a quaint practice facility inside the Accountant General's office campus at Teynampet.

And there he would sweat it out with the ball, training his sights on the square near the good length area, around the right-hander's off-stump.

"The idea was that I should make the batsman play in the corridor," says Balaji, even as his first coach N. P. Balaji nods. It was the latter who drew the box on the wicket, exhorting his wards to adhere to the virtues of line and length.

"You know, I first came here in 1998, and it was my uncle Lokabiraman Balaji, who introduced me to Mr. N. P. Balaji," remembers the India cricketer.

"He had speed, and I realised that he could be groomed into a good pace bowler if he developed control," says N.P. Balaji, a coach at the Prahalad Cricket Academy.

Subsequently, Balaji was spotted by Chemplast, a leading outfit in Chennai, and gradually, the Tamil Nadu youngster worked his way up.

The tour of Australia, where he stepped in admirably to bolster an injury-hit Indian pace attack in the VB tri-series, revealed he was moving along the right path.

And to think that he made the tour down under only because Avishkar Salvi, who was originally chosen in the side, pulled out two days prior to the team's departure because of an injury.

The pain of missing out, far from discouraging Balaji, proved a motivating factor as he destroyed the Rajasthan line-up with a seven-wicket second innings haul in the Ranji Trophy Elite game in Jaipur.

Back in Chennai, he was at the Sai Baba Temple in Shenoynagar, when he received the news of his selection in the Indian team on his mobile phone.

"I was happy, but I also realised that I should make the most of the opportunity," Balaji says. On a demanding campaign, Balaji did not let himself or his team down, operating with common sense and coping with the mental pressures.

During the tour, Balaji showed that he had improved in several aspects of his bowling; he was delivering from closer to the stumps, his wrist was straighter, the seam position seemed better, and there was more momentum in his run-up.

Basically a paceman who brought the ball into the right hander, he was now able to straighten the delivery at the batsman, and on occasions, even move it away. "Since I was initially bowling from so wide of the crease, I was not able to win leg-before decisions," admits Balaji.

When he strikes, his mild celebration is a throwback to another era; the fist clenching and arm pumping routines are not on view when Balaji gets his man. Here, a shy smile is followed by a quiet walk towards his team-mates.

The youngster, who concentrated on a three-quarters length in Australia, sent down a few useful yorkers too and varied his pace to unsettle the batsmen.

"I did not want to give them any width."

He was not intimidated either by the prospect of bowling at the formidable Australian line-up, and along with left-armer Irfan Pathan, formed an effective pace bowling partnership. "We spoke to each other, and worked on the batsmen. Of course, skipper Sourav Ganguly and bowling coach for that tour Bruce Reid were full of encouragement for us."

Balaji worked out under the watchful eyes of Denis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation recently, and gained much from the experience. "He told me a lot about the ideal seam position."

The paceman is thankful to Chemplast, his employer, for all the help in his cricketing journey.

Balaji now awaits the challenges in Pakistan. He makes it clear too that he would be taking that white square with him — "That will always stay in my mind." Certain things never change.