Cricket in India is primarily a batsman’s game and after producing Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar now we have Virat Kohli and we take great pride in that. Indian bowlers over the years have not got their due and you feel that we don’t appreciate bowling as much we should and that’s why there are no role models for kids to look up to when it comes to pace bowling.
India is such a diverse and plural country that there is no homogeneity when it comes to talent and one player who comes to mind is known more for his infectious and pleasant smile than his bowling is Tamil Nadu’s very own Lakshmipathy Balaji or Bala. Balaji, like so many players from that generation (early 2000s), wanted to make a mark in Indian cricket and India was always looking for quality bowlers. Balaji had a very inauspicious and forgettable ODI debut against West Indies at Vadodara in 2002 and registered sorry figures of 44 in four overs. After the initial setback, Balaji disappeared from the Indian but then made a comeback by toiling away in the domestic circuit and got his chance in Australia in 2003-04 in the tri-series.
Every cricketer waits for a defining moment and Balaji got his defining moment during India’s historic visit to Pakistan in 2003-04. The tour is remembered as a friendship series and India bossing the Test and one-day summit and for Virender Sehwag’s exhilarating 309 in Multan Test match. But, during the one-day leg of tour Balaji, out of nowhere, hit Shoaib Akhtar for a six and suddenly became crowd’s favourite.
Watch video: Lakshmipathy Balaji hitting Shoaib Akhtar for a six
Balaji hit Shoaib so nonchalantly like he was having a net and Pakistani crowd were completely taken aback and were chanting his name as if he was a Pakistani cricketer. Balaji, overall, had a successful tour and bowled with pace, accuracy and was cementing himself as a third seamer of the Indian attack.
Injury and fast bowling go hand in hand and Balaji suffered a massive back injury that threatened his career and at one point it was looking like that he might have to retire prematurely. But, being the fighter that he is, he fought all odds and made a sterling comeback to cricket in 2008 in the IPL representing Chennai Super Kings and took a hat-trick and was instrumental in CSK reaching the finals against the eventual champions Rajasthan Royals.
As a professional, you know that you are not the same force as you used to be and Bala despite fighting adversity was not the same bowler and had lost his sting and zip. Balaji, for a brief period of time played for India again, but then he was a spent force and knew that his cricket is coming to an end.
Lakshmipathy Balaji played eight Tests, 30 ODIs and five T20Is and picked up 71 international sticks across formats and would be no doubt having regrets and hollowness in his heart about not achieving his potential. Balaji currently is a highly sought after bowling coach and is giving back to the game in his own little way. Balaji played cricket with a big heart and gave world’s fastest speedster Shoaib Akhtar nightmares by embarrassing him by striking a maximum. Once upon a time, he was the talk of the town of Pakistan and everybody wanted a piece of Balaji!