The Big B of Tamil Nadu

Lakshmipathy Balaji has made his comeback in domestic cricket with a bang. The big man with a soft demeanour is as hard as nails once he gets the ball. He is always ready to get that one wicket which his team needs.

The year 2009 will start on a good note for the domestic season, as leading stars will be available to play for their respective state and zonal sides. It has been a while since the leading players were available for their states in the advanced stages of the Ranji Trophy, and but for the cancellation of India’s tour to Pakistan the situation would have been no different.

It is a known fact that domestic matches, of late, have hardly got due attention. But with top players like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid turning up for their respective state teams, it will create a fair bit of interest among the public. Besides, it will also give the youngsters an opportunity to play with and against some great cricketers which will expedite their learning process.

In the current Ranji season, top teams from the Plate have a chance to qualify for the knock-out stage and thereby have a shot at winning the trophy. This is a good move as in the old format one bad year for a good side was enough to relegate it. Bengal is one team which has benefited immensely from this particular change in format.

There have been a lot of creditable performances in the league and not surprisingly it was a case of batsmen making merry on placid pitches that are dished out almost at every centre. There is no denying the fact that there have been quite a few outright victories, but they reflect the huge differences between the sides rather than the clichéd sporting tracks. The start of a new season always gives a lot of hope to cricketers across the country but this season was probably very crucial for Lakshmipathy Balaji in more ways than one.

The Big B of Tamil Nadu missed the last couple of seasons due to injury and rehabilitation after a back surgery. During this period, I had the pleasure of working with him and right from day one, I wasn’t in any doubt that the big-hearted bowler would make a comeback with a bang.

Tamil Nadu started its Ranji season in Nashik where the pitch was as placid as one can get anywhere else and it was a big test for Balaji in terms of physical fitness and mental strength. Though Balaji had trained hard and built his strength after his surgery, the biggest hurdle for him was in reproducing his re-structured run-up and action in a match situation. He was, expectedly, rusty to start with, but as the season progressed he gained in confidence and his rhythm improved. This was bad news for the batsmen and a very good news for me and the Tamil Nadu team.

We qualified for the knock-out phase in a resounding manner and it will not take a genius to guess that Balaji was one of the important factors for that. The big man with a soft demeanour is as hard as nails once he gets the ball. He is always ready to get that one wicket which his team needs and the pattern has been that he will target the crucial player in the opposition and get him at the right time. The UP batsmen found how disconcerting he can be as he extracted bounce and made the ball fizz on a pitch that generally favours the batsmen once the first session is over.

Balaji is aware that he will not get seamer-friendly pitches in India and looks to deliver no matter how placid the tracks are. It is this attitude that has made his return to cricket possible, and I wonder how many in his situation two years ago would have been as successful. Balaji found himself in a tricky situation as his playing career was in jeopardy once the doctors informed him that he had no option but to undergo a surgery.

Of course, Shane Bond, Steve Harmison and the like had undergone similar surgeries, but the fact that there was no guarantee that Balaji would be able to bowl like before was worrying. This despite the fact that the success rate of such surgeries and players resuming cricket was on the higher side. Eventually, Balaji went through the process and today it is great to see him running in with purpose and doing as well as he is capable of.

Hopefully, the big man will go on to regain the National colours in the near future but considering what he has done until now, it is quite an achievement in itself. I for one know the turmoil that Balaji went through in the last two years. It would have given him a great sense of pride to come back after a major surgery and knowing him well, I am sure that his real pleasure will come from the fact that he is delivering as and when his team wants him to. If at all there was any doubt about Balaji’s potency since his comeback, the spell he bowled against Bengal on the final morning would have dispelled it completely. The Big B of Tamil Nadu brought his team back from a situation where it all looked like a lost cause. I am confident that he will desert the Tamil Nadu side sooner or later, not out of choice but because the Indian team needs his services.