L. Balaji retires from first-class cricket

Lakshmipathy Balaji, the Tamil Nadu stalwart and the former India paceman, has decided to call time on his first-class career of 14 years.

In first-class cricket, the lanky paceman has claimed 330 scalps in 106 matches at 26.10.   -  K. Pichumani

The smiling assassin will no longer be seen in first-class cricket. Lakshmipathy Balaji has decided to call time on the longer version of the game.

“I have to move on, have a young family now. I have given it [my] all during my 16 years as a first-class cricketer. I will be playing in the shorter forms of the game in competitions such as the TNPL and IPL,” Balaji said in a chat with Sportstar here on Wednesday.

In a journey of blood and sweat, he was often up against career-threatening injuries. The battling Balaji, however, managed to leave his mark. He fought hard and drew inspiration from his cricketing idol Anil Kumble each time he found himself in a tough situation. “I would ask myself how Kumble would deal with it. Then I would get my answer,” Balaji said.

The 34-year-old Balaji’s Test career was not big in numbers but he made an impact. No Indian cricketer was more popular in Pakistan during India’s historic tour of its neighbour in 2004. The crowds, cutting across barriers, not just admired the combative streak in him but also his endearing smile.

That was Balaji’s most memorable series. In the decisive third Test in Rawalpindi, the lively Balaji scalped seven in the match including the vital one of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the second innings. “It was a late outswinger, Inzamam nicked it and I would never forget that moment. We won the Test and the series, for the first time in Pakistan.”

Then, in the Mohali Test against the same opposition next year, Balaji consistently clocked speeds close to 140kmph, as he tormented Pakistan with nine wickets in the game. “I had come back from an injury and bowled with a remodelled action. I was generating good pace and took out Younis Khan with a mean one.”

Zaheer Khan was the fellow paceman who guided Balaji during his career. “Zak would constant share his ideas with me, encourage me. He is a fine person.”

Former India coach John Wright was another person who influenced Balaji’s path. “I was very young, just around 20, when I played for India. John really believed in me and made me believe in myself.”

In all, Balaji played eight Tests, picking 27 wickets in an injury-ravaged career of much courage. In first-class cricket, the lanky paceman claimed 330 scalps in 106 matches at 26.10.

Impressive first-class debut

His debut for Tamil Nadu, against Colombo Districts Cricket Association XI, saw Balaji bowl an astonishing spell late on Day Two. Operating with a whippy action and employing his wrists well, Balaji finished the day with figures of 9-5-9-3. With his scorching yorkers finding their mark, Balaji had arrived.

“It is hard for pacemen in Indian conditions. You got to be attacking, swing and reverse swing, bowl yorkers and use the short ball cleverly,” said Balaji.

For long, he was the heart and soul of the Tamil Nadu attack, bowling the side to victories from impossible situations. Balaji also captained the side to the final in the 2011-12 season. “I want to thank the TNCA and all those cricketers and coaches who guided me,” he said. Balaji is also likely to continue as the bowling coach of the Tamil Nadu Ranji side.

This braveheart is a fine cricketer and a good man.