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It was only fitting L Balaji's famous smile, that won over Pakistan in 2004, could manage a grand return in his beloved Chennai
May 10, 2008
Lakshmipathy Balaji has gone through an entire career in five years - burst onto the scene, won a series, hailed as the next big thing, been injured, recovered, been dropped, injured again, disappeared from public memory - but was yet to play a big match on his home ground. So it was only fitting the famous smile that won over Pakistan in 2004 could manage a grand return in his beloved Chennai.
The sight of the evening was to watch Balaji bowl in tandem with Muttiah Muralitharan - two men whose smile, it appeared, could light up the entire stadium. Both came with a bagful of tricks and never shirked from the 1000-watt smile, sometimes impish but mostly out of the sheer joy of being there. A thoroughly hard-fought match was reaching its climax but here were two men trying to smile through the tension.
Balaji's Twenty20 inexperience - this was just his second game - was nowhere to be seen. He was held back specifically for the late overs - coming on fourth change - but it was clear that his ability to change both length and pace would come in handy. The run-up and action have been modified a bit - there's an exaggerated jump early on apart from a more open-chested delivery stride - but the ability to cock the wrist remains as lethal.
Balaji's hat-trick will make the records but it was his two wickets in five balls that swung this match. These weren't tailenders but two batsmen who were getting warmed up. Shaun Marsh, who probably strikes the ball cleaner than anyone else in this tournament, had just blasted Murali out of the ground and Ramnaresh Sarwan had poked around enough to pull the trigger. Eighty-seven needed off 48 and the whole game hung on the finest of threads.
That's when Balaji ambled in. Sarwan jumped down the track with the kind of urgency that you normally get when it's premeditated but Balaji ensured it was straight and just back of a length. A swing, a miss, and the middle stump was uprooted.
Four balls later there was another wicket but it was the three balls in between that played a part. Yuvraj Singh was greeted with a short one outside off, followed by a slower full one outside off, followed by a yorker outside off. Three balls, one run, high pressure. It was all to get to the marauding Marsh. He realised how deceptive an ambling run to the crease can be: a short one took him by surprise, so much so that his bottom hand came off the handle as he popped a catch to square leg. Five balls, one run, two wickets. Match effectively over.
The moment of glory arrived in the last over. Irfan Pathan, who needed to hit every ball for six, was done in by a slow bouncer; Piyush Chawla, who needed to crack three consecutive sixes to tie, chipped to long-off; and VRV Singh, who couldn't have won it come what may, top-edged to Mahendra Singh Dhoni behind the stumps. Each was followed by a smile that got wider and wider before he finally let out that bewildered look as if to suggest he didn't mean any of this at all.
He's worked as a lucky charm for Chennai - his return has coincided with them putting together two successive wins. Their batting worries seems to have eased a bit - with Stephen Fleming coming off in the last match and S Badrinath showing his striking powers here - and their fielding has definitely gone up a few notches. Their IPL prospects have definitely brightened but followers of Indian cricket will look beyond. Balaji zara dheere chalo - as the Pakistanis sang in 2004 - might well be a catchy chant yet again.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at CricinfoFeeds: Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
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