By Nishad Pai Vaidya
In early 2004, India embarked on a historic tour to Pakistan – one that was expected to build bridges between the two neighbours. “Jeet lo dil” (Hindi for “win hearts”) was a motto for the Indian team as they went across the border as ambassadors of peace and not cricketers alone. It was a memorable series as the two sides warmed up to each other and India clinched both the Test and the One-Day International (ODI) series. Through all that, there was one man – relatively unknown before the tour – whose grinning smile captivated the hearts of the Pakistan cricket fans. Lakshmipathy Balaji symbolised the essence of the tour as his performances on the field and hysteria off it created ripples.
Balaji had been with the Indian team for some time before that tour, but it was only in Pakistan that the world took notice of him. His bowling was stable and decent - often eclipsed by his idiosyncratic batting against the Pakistani pacers. He fearlessly lifted Shoaib Akhtar and company for a couple of sixes during the tour and grinned his way to delight under the helmet – a picture that raised his mark on the popularity charts. He delivered on crucial occasions during the series. His spells in the fourth and fifth ODI were crucial in their comeback after being 1-2 down after three games. In the third Test – the decider – his math haul of seven wickets helped India bowl Pakistan out twice without too many worries. Many believed a star was born.
The whole promise of that tour withered away as Balaji was plagued with a number of injuries in the years ahead. There was a comeback in 2005 – against Pakistan at home - where he showed more promise, but injuries returned to haunt him. The easy flowing action was said to be one of the reasons for his predicament and he had to tweak it as he tried to work his way back. As a result, the free-flowing graceful run-up became a bit awkward looking – one where he would hop a touch at the start and significantly smaller jump at the delivery stride.
In 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) gave Balaji a new lease of life as he put in consistent performances for Chennai Super Kings. He followed it up with a good performance for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy later that year and was called up to the Indian team in Sri Lanka in early 2009. He played the fifth and final ODI of that tour, but didn’t make much of an impression. However, he was picked for the Test team for the tour of New Zealand that followed. Since then, he hasn’t come close to selection until he was called up for the ICC World T20 2012.
While the return of Yuvraj Singh and the bizarre call-ups of Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla stole the headlines, Balaji’s comeback was pushed into relative oblivion. On the outset, the selection may come as a surprise as it has come ahead of someone like an Umesh Yadav – who was one of the best Indian fast bowlers at the IPL 2012. Balaji performed decently well for Kolkata Knight Riders, but wasn’t a regular in the side.
Some of India’s best bowlers struggled to contain the flow of runs during the IPL 2012 and that was a huge cause for concern. In contrast, Balaji was very economical and didn’t go for too many. He may not have been amongst the top wicket-takers, but his economy rate was fantastic and reflected his control. Even the likes of Zaheer Khan, R Vinay Kumar – the highest Indian wicket-taker at the IPL, and Umesh Yadav conceded runs at a rate exceeding seven runs an over. Balaji, on the other hand, went for only 5.40 in the eight games he played. When coupled with his 11 wickets, his contributions make decent reading.
Now that Balaji has made it into the squad, the question is: Would he get into the playing eleven? With Zaheer, Ashok Dinda and Irfan Pathan in the squad, it looks unlikely that the Tamil Badu seamer may get a game. In Sri Lankan conditions, if Dhoni decides to play four bowlers i.e. two fast bowlers and two spinners, Zaheer and Pathan should make the cut considering their latest outings in the country. If the team management opts for five specialist bowlers with Pathan as the all-rounder at No 7, Balaji and Dinda may compete for the third seamers’ spot.
In the Indian context, a comeback post the age of 30 is a rare occurrence. Probably the emergence of the T20 format has opened the floodgates a touch giving such players a shot at redemption. Balaji’s fight against injuries has been heartening and he would want to cap it off by prolonging his stay at the international level. Will the same smile dazzle the stage yet again?
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)