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On the upswing

S.DINAKAR

From tennis ball to red cherry, it had been one exhilarating ride for L. Balaji, one of India's brightest pace bowling prospects. A unique cricketing tale in itself.

SPORTING CAREERS often have slender threads running through them. Just listen to this...

Four years ago, it wouldn't have been uncommon to watch Laxmipathy Balaji operating in those floodlit tennis ball tournaments. He was a star there.

He was more than 16, yet had seldom held the much harder leather ball. Balaji would bamboozle the batsmen with huge inswingers, win matches for his side, and then return home with his visage sporting a smile.

Several sporting tales would have ended just here. A boy has his success in light-hearted, amateur cricket, finds himself a job and soon cricket becomes a distant past.

The L. Balaji story took a very different turn though. Yes, we come back to tales woven on slender threads.

The youngster joined Prahlad CC, a local city coaching club, in 1998, competed in the third division for AG's Office, and was fortunate to come across a caring coach with a similar name, N.P. Balaji. A lucky break was just round the corner.

The tall paceman figured in the YSCA tournament, as guest player for Chemplast, castled prominent state batsman India Cements' S. Sharath with his first delivery, and was soon on his way. Chemplast, quick to spot the talent in Balaji, enrolled him.

Fast Forward: The year is 2002, it's Friday, May 3. We have an appointment in the evening with one of India's brightest pace bowling prospects. The young man has just returned from an India `A' tour of South Africa, where he had performed creditably.

The cricketer in question — L. Balaji. From tennis ball to red cherry, it had been one exhilarating ride for Balaji. A unique cricketing tale in itself.

Balaji had a fine season for a debutant with 32 wickets in just seven Ranji games, so easily slipping into the role of a spearhead. He was, not surprisingly, the leading wicket-keeper for Tamil Nadu in 2001-2002.

He has not forgotten tennis ball cricket. In fact, he acknowledges he learnt some valuable lessons there. ``I used to practise bowling inswingers and yorkers with the tennis ball, since line and length bowling can be whacked in that form of cricket. You have to pitch the ball up, get the batsmen bowled or leg-before,'' reveals Balaji.

Indeed, even with the leather ball, the inswingers and the yorkers are his principal weapons. Several hapless batsmen have seen the ball crashing into the stumps.

Yes, Balaji with his quick arm action can be quite sharp and, belying his age and experience, has developed a good slower one which he sends down occasionally to baffle the batsmen.

Along the way, he has also worked on certain flaws in his approach. Initially, he appeared to lose momentum as he ran in, however, Balaji has worked on it, and now has a more fluent run-up.

Adjusting to the leather ball was not easy too and Balaji worked tirelessly at the nets, made the necessary adjustment in length, and also learnt to grip the ball along the seam — he used to run his fingers across a tennis ball.

Keeping his wrist straight at the point of delivery and better use of the non-bowling arm are at the top of the list of priorities for Balaji. He realises the need to bowl outswingers in top-flight cricket and is striving to get closer to the stumps before releasing the ball.

He is also correcting a problem with his leading foot while landing, which faced `point' instead of being straighter. Again, Balaji has worked on it, and admits to receiving tips from Indian pace spearhead Javagal Srinath at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), Bangalore. Watching Dennis Lillee guide youngsters at the MRF Pace Foundation has been an education in itself for Balaji.

Indeed, the stint at the NCA at the beginning of the 2001-2002 season prepared Balaji for the challenges ahead. "NCA was just wonderful. I learnt so much there, about bowling, fitness, discipline."

Incidentally, one of the reasons for the NCA call-up was his fine bowling in the South Zone-England u-19 three-day duel at the ICL-Guru Nanak College ground in Chennai, 2000. Balaji scalped four in that game, and went on to sparkle for South Zone in the C.K. Nayudu tournament, with a hat-trick against Central standing out. NCA beckoned.

Credit is also due to the State selectors for providing a break to Balaji at the very start of the 2001-2002 season. And it was Balaji's two spells — 6-4-5-1 & 3-1-2-2 — late on the second day of the Gopalan Trophy match against the Colombo District Cricket Association side that turned the contest around.

Indeed, throughout the season for Tamil Nadu, Balaji has invariably made early inroads, pushing the opponent on the backfoot. Like in the last 16 clash against Mumbai in Chennai, where his three strikes — this included Wasim Jaffer and Vinayak Mane — were instrumental in Tamil Nadu bouncing back after being bundled out for 184 on the first day.

Given his ability to strike, Balaji was in the Board President's XI squad for a three-day match against Zimbabwe in Vijayawada and soon came the news of his inclusion in the India `A' side for the South African campaign.

Balaji says the pitches he played on in South Africa were not seaming, bouncing tracks, although a couple of them had good `carry'. ``I strove to bowl a different length. Since the South Africans are good cutters and pullers, I had to get them on the drive.''

Balaji had a reasonable tour, bagging four wickets in the first `Test' at Kimberly. His best moment in the ODI series was when South Africa `A' required 72 runs from 12 overs in the third game at Lenesia, and he sent down his five overs at the `death' for just 16.

It has been a dramatic rise for the 20-year-old Balaji and he hasn't forgotten the people who have helped him along the way. Men like former cricketers and now coaches K. Bharat Kumar, B. Arun, and Abdul Jabbar.

Balaji also realises that the road ahead is bound to be steep. India `A' tour of Sri Lanka will be the next stop for Balaji. He is confident. So are we.

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