Lakshmipahty Balaji, born on Septmber 27, 1981, was a speedster upon whom India pinned great hopes. Sadly, injuries didn’t allow him to grow. Yet, he fights on making contributions at a few intervals. Nishad Pai Vaidya traces the cricketing journey of the smiling assassin.
A tearaway fast bowler went back to his mark with the crowd behind him. In front of him was a tailender with unknown potential with the bat. The speedster had snared many of them in his career and thought he could get through this one as well. He ran in and delivered his usual thunderbolt, but the man at the other end nonchalantly lofted it into the stands. Shoaib Akhtar was shocked as Lakshmipathy Balaji clobbered him for six at Peshawar; the smile beaming through his helmet. That very smile became a rage amongst the Pakistan fans in 2004; when Sourav Ganguly’s men crossed the border for the historic tour and Balaji emerged as one of unlikeliest heroes.
Born on September 27, 1981 in Chennai, Balaji first played for Tamil Nadu Under-19 in 1999. In 2001-02, he made his First-Class debut when he played for Tamil Nadu against Colombo District Cricket Association and picked up four wickets in his first outing. On Ranji Trophy debut against Goa in November 2001, Balaji took five for 42 in the second innings to help Tamil Nadu take the superior points. He finished that season with 37 wickets in eight matches at an average of 20.51. The selectors took notice of that and after his very first season, he was on the national radar as he was a part of the India A sides to South Africa and Sri Lanka in 2002.
In November 2002, Balaji was called up to the Indian team for the One-Day International (ODI) series against West Indies. Making his debut at Vadodra, Balaji was unfortunate to have run into the rampaging pair of Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds and was carted for 44 in only four overs. As India neared the 2003 World Cup, the focus was on the more established bowlers and Balaji was sent back to domestic cricket. That assault by Gayle did not deter him and he had an even better season. In eight matches, he took 48 wickets at 15.12 with seven fifers and three 10-wicket match hauls. Again, he was on the India A flight to the West Indies and England.
Then in October 2003, Balaji made his Test debut against the touring New Zealanders. The two-match Test series was a drawn affair with a lot of runs scored. Again, his start wasn’t encouraging as he took only one wicket in the series. Nevertheless, he was retained for the tour to Australia in 2003-04 and was to improve his performances in the one-day arena. He didn’t get to play any Tests, but gradually proved his worth in ODIs. In a tri-series encounter against Australia, he took four for 48, taking Damien Martyn and Ricky Ponting cheaply as India registered a win. However, Australia got one back as Brett Lee smashed a six off him [to help win the game] as a subsequent ODI went into the last over.
It was during the Pakistan tour that followed where Balaji made a name for himself. The six-hitting was of course enjoyable, but the beaming smile is what captured attention. When India were down 1-2 going into the last two ODIs, Balaji produced important spells to help them clinch a historic series victory. During the third Test, his spell of four for 63 helped India bundle out Pakistan and then the batsmen plundered the runs. He took three more in the second innings to seal victory — again in a decisive encounter — helping India win the Test series as well.
Balaji had become a crucial part of the India line-up and along with Irfan Pathan, he was considered the next big hope. But, injuries came to haunt him in 2004 and he only came back against his favourite opponents, Pakistan in 2005. To celebrate his comeback, he took five for 76 in the first innings at Mohali. He followed it up with four for 95 in the second, but Kamran Akmal held firm to keep India at bay. Balaji played the whole Test series and was also a part of the side for the one-dayers. However, the rigours of fast bowling had taken its toll and he had a back-problem which kept him on the sidelines. He could only make a comeback in 2006 and played the Challenger Trophy without much success.
When Balaji returned from injury, there was an obvious change in action. The flow was still there, but something was missing. Nevetheless, what he lacked in pace, he made up for it in variations. The change was necessary as the previous action was putting pressure on his body He didn’t play the 2006-07 or the 2007-08 domestic seasons for Tamil Nadu and was then seen during the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) in the yellow jersey of the Chennai Super Kings. In his second game of the tournament, he took five for 24, which included a hat-trick. Balaji had also found this well-disguised slower ball and the changes in pace made it difficult for the batsmen.
That tournament was his big ticket as it helped him get selected for the Challenger Trophy in 2008 and he also returned to the Tamil Nadu side. The season was great for him as he took 43 wickets in nine matches at 19.06 with four fifers. That fast-tracked his return to the Indian team when he was picked for the ODIs in Sri Lanka in 2009 as a replacement. His return was not a happy one as he was hit for 32 runs in his five overs. That is his last ODI so far. He also travelled to New Zealand for the Test series in 2009.
Balaji then spent three years out of the Indian setup, but was recalled for the ICC World T20 2012. In previous IPL seasons he wasn’t very economical, but in 2012 he showed good control and was rewarded for that. During the tournament, he was India’s highest wicket-taker with nine. His spell of three for 22 in the game against Pakistan was crucial in setting up a victory. In the last game against South Africa, he picked up two wickets in the final over to help India win by one run, but it wasn’t enough to take them through to the semi-finals.
It is quite sad that India lost good years from Balaji due to injuries. He has had his moments at the highest level, but there always was hope for a lot more. Perhaps, he can still comeback as he has shown that he is not willing to give it up just yet.
In Photos: Lakshmipathy Balaji’s career