L Balaji December 18, 2012

'The whole Gaddafi Stadium was chanting my name'

L Balaji got plenty of fans when he toured Pakistan in 2004. Shoaib Akhtar wasn't one of them

Is it true that Imran Khan was your idol?
He was one cricketer I had heard a lot about during my formative years. I enjoyed watching him during the 1992 World Cup final. As a ten-year-old, I would try to imitate his action. I read about him and took posters of his from old Sportstar magazines that I found at used-book shops.

So it was nice to meet him in person on India's 2003-04 tour of Pakistan. He came up to me during a function and said he enjoyed watching my outswinger. I could not stop telling him how fascinating a bowler he was for me while growing up. It was a dream come true for me to meet him. He also said I had a nice smile. I could not stop smiling after that!

Tell us something we do not know about you.
I look reserved but as a child I was very naughty, and my mother would always worry about what I might have done, since I would climb trees to pluck mangoes, guavas, fall down, secretly fly kites from the terrace of our apartment building and come home having hurt myself. I have had a lot of stitches in my childhood.

Ours was an academics-oriented house, and my two older sisters are engineers, like my dad. But I would lie and skip tuitions to join my friends to play gully cricket. My passion for cricket was born out of there.

Has your smile ever got you in trouble?
My sisters and close friends always tease me and say how is it that my smile started making headlines when they never noticed anything about it that stood out.

I had jaw surgery once and the alignment of my teeth gives people the impression that I'm always smiling, even while facing a 150kph delivery from Shoaib Akhtar. Of course, I didn't smile then!

What hurts more: a fellow fast bowler, a tailender, hitting you for a six or a specialist batsman hitting you for a six?
Definitely a tailender hitting me for a six, because the team would be expecting me to wrap up the innings. Unfortunately anyone can hit you for a six with those heavy, meaty bats in the market today.

Has Shoaib Akhtar forgiven you for hitting him for a six in the Test at his home ground, Rawalpindi, in 2004?
He never forgot. On Pakistan's return tour of India in 2005, he said, "I still remember your six, okay? I have to give it back." He would repeat the line wherever he met me, on the ground, in the lifts at the team hotel...

Your best five-for?
On the first day of the first Test of the 2005 series against Pakistan, I took 5 for 76. I got one wicket in my first two spells but with the second new ball I wrapped up the lower middle order and the tail. It was a fulfilling day of cricket. A fast bowler looks for where he has enjoyed the whole day and balanced his workload to get the five-for. I remember getting the fifth wicket in the last over of the day. It was a satisfying experience.

Who is the toughest Indian batsman you have bowled to?
Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. There is nothing like a good-length ball or a good ball for them. That is the feeling I get as a bowler from the way they bat. They adjust and adapt quickly to the bowler's lengths.

Crowds love chanting your name since it rolls off the tongue easily and has a rhythm to it. Can you give us an instance of when the crowd egged you on to raise your level of play?
It happened during the final match of the ODI series in Pakistan in 2004. The whole Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore was chanting my name. I was surprised to see a foreign crowd do that. In India you only hear the names of Sachin and Sourav mostly, but never Balaji. The series had been tied 2-2 going into the final match, and Moin Khan was standing strong and threatening to take the match away. But the crowd got me going and I managed to bowl Moin and win the series.

What is the best bowled dismissal you have had?
I still have this picture of sending Kamran Akmal's stump flying on the fourth day of the Rawalpindi Test. I bowled an incutter, he missed the line and the ball hit the stumps. We celebrate any time the ball rattles the wood but the beauty about this wicket was the stump flying over Kamran's head. To this day I get excited when I look at that picture.

What kind of a batsman is the most difficult to bowl to?
Someone who reads the bowler's strengths well and adjusts accordingly. Mahela Jayawardene is that kind of batsman. He will make you change your fields and has an advantage because he plays all the shots.

If cricket has taught you one thing, what is it?
You have to get up after you are knocked down. Even if you do not have the talent you need to be resilient. That has helped me stay strong each time I have been sidelined by injury or when I have been walloped for a lot of runs in an over.

How do you relax?
Once every year I go to a wildlife sanctuary, just to be in the middle of nature. It is an amazing experience. I am not interested in photography. I am more keen to just be there and relax.

R Ashwin told us he is a huge Rajnikant fan. What about you?
First-day first-show for a Rajni movie was a must for me as a schoolboy. Once, my friends and I tried to get into the first show of his movie Veera. We went to Rohini theatre in Chennai and saw thousands waiting outside. Luckily we had a friend who worked with a Rajni fan club. He managed to get us tickets and take us in. I still remember the first half hour of the movie: everything that Rajni did or said made the fans go berserk. It was such an electrifying experience and it still gives me goosebumps.

Did you ever use Rajni lines to inspire your team-mates?
Not really. But I use his words as an example whenever I am speaking to schoolkids. Rajni, along with APJ Abdul Kalam [former president of India] and AR Rahman [music composer] are three personalities from Tamil Nadu who have a wider reach and have inspired people not only in India but outside. What these three have taught is that it is not only the art you are involved in, but how you sustain yourself and how you take success and failure in your stride, and keep fighting and go for the bigger goal in life.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo