India Blue v India Red, Final, Challenger Series October 4, 2006

Nehra and Balaji fail to take the lead



Balaji had little to show for his trip to the stadium, and will play no part in the Irani Trophy © AFP

A heavy downpour put paid to any chance of the Challenger Series being resolved in a fruitful manner, even as India Blue were well set, on 210 for 4 from just over 30 overs, led by a typically belligerent innings from Virender Sehwag. There was thunder and lightning, but not of the cricketing kind. But for two cricketers, the whole series had been a washout. Lakshmipathy Balaji and Ashish Nehra needed this series to find a way back to the Indian team.

The stage was well set for the two quick men - the wicket was hard, with a smattering of grass, and although there was little or no lateral movement, there was bounce and carry. This was the sort of pitch that Nehra could have been devastating on, as he delivers the ball from a high-arm action, and extra bounce has been the undoing of more than one batsman against him. But, apart from the occasional delivery that reared, Nehra's tale was one of underperformance.

In the first match against India Blue, he went for 67 from 10 overs, picking up only one wicket. He was not merely negotiated, but well mastered by the batsmen. In the second game, he failed to even pick up a wicket, going for 64 from 10 overs. With India Green failing to make the final, that was all the chance he had. "It's not just the Challenger Series. I need to bowl well in domestic cricket over an extended period to make a comeback," Nehra had said on the eve of this tournament. For the moment, though, it's all the chance he'll get, not having done enough to make the Rest of India squad for the Irani Trophy.

Balaji's case is slightly different. Nehra, though out of the Indian team through injury and poor form, has been playing a bit of cricket, in the leagues in England. For Balaji, who had a stress fracture of the back - that most dreaded of injuries for a fast bowler - just finding bowling rhythm was crucial. He has slowly plodded his way back to cricket, extended training and physiotherapy paving his way for a return to first-division league cricket in Chennai and also the Moin-ud-Dowlah trophy in Hyderabad.

With Irfan Pathan's struggles with the ball continuing, India could have done with the services the Balaji who played a couple of years ago. Fully fit, and hitting his straps, Balaji is a handful - capable of swinging the ball both ways, cutting it off the pitch. Add a well disguised slower ball and a handy yorker, and you've got a pretty complete bowler. But the way Balaji bowled in the Challenger Series was a far cry from this. The pace was well down, the bounce missing, and in general he failed to trouble batsmen as he has in the past. He too, will play no part in the Irani Trophy.

"It's no much about saying I want to bowl well in this match or that. The main thing for me now is to get back to playing and bowling at this level. I have to find my rhythm," Balaji said, before the Challenger series.

Both bowlers were searching for something, and neither found what they wanted, and will have to go back to the drawing board and start the journey back to the Indian team from scratch. The selectors, meanwhile, found VRV Singh the best man to lead the attack in the Irani Trophy, with Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and Vijaykumar Yomahesh for company.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo

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