India in Pakistan 2003-04 April 10, 2004

Bowled over by Bala ji

Rahul Dravid, Irfan Pathan, Parthiv Patel and Lakshmipathy Balaji visit the LUMS university in Lahore



Lakshmipathy Balaji: his popularity in Pakistan has taken everyone by surprise © AFP

If you take four international cricketers and put them into a college auditorium, packed to the rafters with teenaged boys and girls, the reaction is like dropping a nugget of sodium in water. "Balaji! Balaji! Balaji!" went the roars as members of the Indian team trooped into the Lahore University of Management Studies, or LUMS as it is popularly referred to in these parts. Rahul Dravid, Irfan Pathan, Parthiv Patel and Lakshmipathy Balaji were overwhelmed.

Founded in 1985, LUMS is probably the best college in Lahore. Although not steeped in history and tradition like the Government College, once one of the leading colleges in undivided India, LUMS is state of the art, well designed, and has the casual air of any college campus you might see in the west. Its red-brick theme goes well with the manicured gardens, large courtyards and high-roofed corridors. LUMS is a bit of a misnomer, as it has long ceased to be an exclusive management school.

But when the Indian players stepped into the campus, it ceased to be a centre for higher learning. It became a heaving, caterwauling, cat-calling, whistling theatre of dreams where kids got a chance to come face to face with celebrities. "I was this close to Balaji," said an excited Sajeda to her equally keyed-up friend, indicating the distance with the span of her trembling hand. Balaji? Surely you mean Sachin Tendulkar? Or Shah Rukh Khan? If Umar Gul was the surprise package with the ball, Balaji has been the shocker in the popularity charts on this tour.

But why, we asked, and the answers were predictably barmy. "His name is so sweet. You see, we use ji as a form of respect, like Inzamam ji or Yousuf ji. With Balaji you don't have to, it's already there," said one of the seniors in the college. Another put it down to the fact that the syllables in the name Ba-la-ji lend themselves more effortlessly to chanting than most others. And then there's that six he hit off Shoaib Akhtar. There's a growing irritation among the younger generation of Pakistanis with Shoaib's repeated mouthing off. So, when Balaji, the unlikeliest of heroes, clattered Shoaib high into the stands, it fulfilled the ambition of a generation. "I must tell you I've never even hit a six in Ranji Trophy or first-class cricket," said Balaji, sending the crowd into further excitable chanting.

But the evening was not all about Balaji. There was the elder statesman, Dravid, confirming journalists' belief that he has a long and distinguished career in the diplomatic corps waiting for him if he wants it, when he hangs up his batting gloves. "Coming here reminds me of the time I was in college. We used to sit around in the auditoriums and make a racket every time someone came to speak to us. I can now tell you for sure, it's more fun being on the side you are," he said from the podium, and in one stroke won over the whole audience.

Dravid, Ratnakar Shetty - the manager who still teaches Chemistry in Mumbai's Wilson College - Pathan, Patel and Rameez Raja fielded questions of all sorts from the audience. Questions came from children - some so small they had to be held up by their parents - young and old men, and young women dressed in everything from Burqas to clothes that left little to the imagination.

"I have always found it hard to understand the preconceived notions against India," said Dravid, when asked about how his impressions of Pakistan had changed since he arrived here. "I am still asked, 'Do you have snake-charmers on the road? How do you speak such good English?' I did not come with preconceived notions. I told myself I would come with an open mind and I have liked what I have seen and experienced."

There was more. "Where the hell is Sachin Tendulkar?" yelled one student. "Preparing to score a double-century in the next match," said Dravid with a smile that brought a huge cheer. But the biggest cheer went up when Balaji was asked what he liked best about Pakistan. "The girls here are really pretty," he said, and that pretty much brought the house down.

What the interaction was aimed at achieving, one is not quite clear about. But no group of students would have been allowed to behave in such an unshackled and unrestrained manner in India. Professors would have brooded over their wards, vetting every question that was asked, and similar figures of authority would have patrolled the aisles, making sure that decorum was maintained. But how deep an interaction can you have in half an hour of chit-chat? How much can you learn about another country by asking questions of four sportsmen? At least this way everyone had a grand time, and even the quietest of cricketers left feeling like an international hero.

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