Balaji proves a point
When Lakshmipathy Balaji stepped onto the cricket field as an Indian bowler for the first time, he was quickly branded as an honest tryer of limited ability. With his action he could not bowl the outswinger to the right-hander, said the experts. His tendency to bowl from wide of the crease meant that he could never get an lbw, they added. And now, when he has done all that and more, there is an attempt to explain this miraculous transformation. But his 4 for 63 on the opening day of the final Test against Pakistan comprehensively proved that he was more than a one-trick pony.
Balaji will be the first to admit that he is no Dennis Lillee. Yet, even he was surprised at the manner in which he was judged when he first came on the scene, against West Indies at Baroda. Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds carted the Indian bowling all around the park and Balaji came in for especially severe treatment, going for 44 runs from four overs. People who watched that match will tell you that the pitch for that one-dayer had as much grass on it as a sand dune in the Sahara, and as much life in it as an embalmed mummy. That, more than anything else, should have been reason enough to give Balaji the benefit of the doubt on his debut. He confided not long ago that he had eagerly read match reports of his debut, and was surprised by the manner in which he was written off. He did not return to the Indian team for almost a year.
Since then Irfan Pathan has joined the cast and made rapid strides. Pathan has the natural ability to move the ball both ways, is a clean striker of the ball, and is energetic in the field. And so, rightfully, Pathan has hogged much of the limelight. Through all this, Balaji has plugged away quietly. He knows his limitations, and instead of bowling within them, has worked hard on overcoming them. His ability to bowl long spells without an obvious flagging of pace or direction prompted the team management to use him as a restrictive bowler on the flat Indian tracks on which Balaji played his first two Tests.
On this tour of Pakistan, he bowled with enough control at Multan to keep his place in the team for the second Test, despite the availability of both Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar. And now, after leading the charge against Pakistan in the first innings of the third Test, Balaji can put to rest any self-doubt about his wicket-taking ability that may have started to creep in.
When he began his spell Balaji was not his usual self. Instead of loping in and delivering the ball in the corridor around off stump, he sprayed it down the leg side and far outside off. And yet, when he did manage to hit a fuller length and a straighter line, the results were devastating. Taufeeq Umar's tendency to fall over had him plumb in front to one such delivery. That gave India the breakthrough they so desperately needed.
From then on Balaji was a different man. The ball began to wobble in the air and seam off the surface, and worst of all for the batsmen, from a line and length which forced them to play. But that was merely a teaser for what was to follow.
After lunch Balaji came on from the Media Centre End, and swung the ball as though it were on a string. His wide-of-the-crease delivery style meant that the ball started off as though it was coming in, and then ducked away at the last moment, often aided by movement off the seam. His wrist position became better too: once he managed to cock his wrist and deliver the ball with an upright seam, the high-arm action did the rest.
Asim Kamal was at the wrong end of a well-pitched-up delivery, and was caught in front of the stumps. Kamran Akmal chased at a delivery outside off and was snapped up by VVS Laxman. Then Balaji produced a brute. If spinners hate getting out to members of their own tribe, how different can fast bowlers be? Shoaib Akhtar was squared up by a ball that seemed destined for his pads, and when he shifted his weight to play through the line of the ball, it suddenly veered away, clipping his off stump in the process. In nine swinging, seaming overs after lunch Balaji had picked 3 for 29, and shown that he very much belonged at Test level.