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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • spirit on December 20, 2012, 16:55 GMT

    @wakaPAK,outside Asia Sachin also played in Zim but his average there is the lowest at 40 among all places,so without counting zim sachin's average infact goes up,and his combined average in aus,eng and SA is 52,and these three r the toughest to tour for asian batsman (at present)and they r also a quality side,so ur argument of using zimbabwe makes no sense..sachin maybe struggling at present bcoz he's no more the young player but that does'nt hide away the fact that he's a supremely talented and great batsman,many regards him as the best after Don and those many includes most cricket legends...

  • Wiqar on December 20, 2012, 11:28 GMT

    @g.narsimha We have won 31% of test we played compared to India's 24. We won 16 test against WI and lost 15, India lost 30 tests against WI and won 14. Pak was the only hard nut to crack during WI dominance era. Miandad 46 runs average is outside asia which means it's not against India if I include India it should go up. Tendulkar averages 50 outside asia and Tendulkar played Zimbabwe too. Here's another stat. If you lose toss and you are asked to bat it means the pitch is good for bowlers especially when the pitch brings result (the match is not drawn) Tendulkar averages 37 on such pitches and Miandad.... 50. I'd say Gavaskar, Vengsarkar and Viswanath were the best of India. Tendulkar? He's in the 2nd category with Laxman/Dravid. and please dont bring ODI stats, ODI is flat like Carrom board.

  • narbavi on December 20, 2012, 8:31 GMT

    @getsetgopk: Not denying the greatness of Imran Khan, nobody would do that, but in that case other people would come and say even Botham did something similar with bat and ball, its not that kallis played against weak bowlers or something, he is playing in an era where great bowlers like Kumble, murali ,warne, mcgrath ,vaas wasim waqar, shoaib and many others were involved!! opinions differ no doubt!! For me personally those stats of kallis can't be ignored for an imran or a botham or a gary sobers or a tendulkar etc when we talk about the greatest!!

  • narsimha on December 19, 2012, 14:33 GMT

    wakaPAK- Iwas not at all indened ,demean r players but the way few of INDIA haters from PAK post demeaning coments on our greats we tempt to resond i know our heroes dosnt need certificates from people like kiwirocker or letsetgopak or lilianthomson they are legends on thierv ownright & if one billion admires that metter rest is just nuisence , reg -MIANDAD ur stats are not in confirmity with facts his home ave-in near70 against his carier ave of 49 in AUS HE WAS POOR HE MIGHT HAD PLAYED FEW INNINGS IN FOURTH INNING butSACHIN AWAY AVE-55 , HE MAINTAINED IT IN AUS ,ENG, HE TOO FACED MARSHAL, &CO , + U R GREAT BOWLERS BUT MIANDAD feasted on weaker IND bowling that too only in pak he was not that much seccessful in INDIA IJUST mentioned his stas to ccounter above mentioned gentlemen who madeit an single agenda of demeaning indian cricket & our players some time talking highly of MIANDAD , U R OTHER CONTENTION THAT U had great bowling , than where are the results no series win in wi,

  • Chithsabesh on December 19, 2012, 13:51 GMT

    I am a Saffer i normally never even bother about these Pages. But the reason i came here is Pakistans next visit to South Africa. I have no doubt that Pakistan well give us a though fight.But on the other side i know that it is going to be very difficult for them. I will be the first to admit that they have a very good bowling attack.But the pitches for sure will not help Ajmal and Rehman. Junaid Khan remains there best hope. But come on Pakistans biggest weakness is their batting. I really dont expect there Batting to last long against Dale steyn and Co.So as it happens my prediction 2-0 to South Africa.Sorry to spoil the India pakistan fun.

  • Wiqar on December 19, 2012, 10:53 GMT

    @ g.narsimha: Miandad outside Asia averaged 46, Tendulkar avrages 50 so no big difference. Batting in fourth innings is difficult especially when the match gives you result (because the pitch is not flat), Tendulkar averages 34 while Miandad averages 54 in 4th innings in matches which resulted in draw. And in those matches which their teams lost where you were supposed to stay for long in 4th innings and bat and the lost result also meant the opposition bowlers were good, Miandadad averages 36 while Tendulkar average 23. Miandad batted in golden era of bowling with all the laws favoring bowling and you could bowl as many bouncers as you could; it was the era of Lillee, thomspson, Marshal, Holding , Hadlee, garner,colin croft. Miandad averaged 38 in 80s against WI with Border averaging 46 the highest and Gavaskar 41. We know Miandad is great but we dont boast too much of our batsmen because there are others who were better than Miandad but in bowling department Pak have are the best.

  • Amjad on December 19, 2012, 10:41 GMT

    @Narbavi: Hmm... not sure if thats the right question you should be asking a Pak fan as you know bowling is our strength and we dont need that many runs on the board to win. Ind on the other hand needs batters with above 50 averages just to remain competitive and take a match to the final day. However, since you asked, Azhar Ali averages 46, Asad Shafiq and Hafeez 42 and the worst of them all Umar Akmal shares the same average as Kohli after same number of matches i.e 38, poor even by our standards. Maybe he will get better but as of now, i'll rather have my doubts. The moment you put a few fielders around the bat and choke the freedom, his confidence falls apart and he looks clueless, you gota love test cricket! And as far Kallis, im aware of his record, but seriously you shouldn't be comparing based on the hundreds and runs scored, less cricket was played in those days. IMRAN played against Lilly, Holding, Garner, Viv etc and stood out, GREATEST, would you not say so?

  • Dummy4 on December 19, 2012, 9:58 GMT

    An excellent read, enjoyed alot............... I never liked Bala ji but this article has changed my perception about him.... Best of luck in life from Pakistan

  • Bobby on December 19, 2012, 8:39 GMT

    RakeshBajaj: You should not pick selective matches to disrespect great sportsmen. Waqar Younis had 374 wickets in 85 test matches at an average of around 22 runs. Kapil Dev had 400 wickets in 678 test matches. Waqar Younis had one of highest strike rate for his wickets. He was a superb swing bowler. Most of wickets that Wasim Akram took were because of Waqar Younis. Pakistan's best ever fast bowler was Imran Khan..Hands down, but second best has to be Waqar Younis. Yes, indeed, Waqar younis lost his length and went for few in world cup QF in 1996...But Anil Kumble went for 27 runs against Saeed Anwar in one over in Independance Cup in 1997. Kapil Dev was hit for 19 runs in nehru cup by Imran Khan. Shahid Afridi took Anil Kumble to cleaners for his 45 ball hundred in Kanpur. Shahid Afridi also hit Harbhajan Singh five consective sixes in one test match in 2006. That does not make any of these bowlers a bad bowler. They just had a bad day! This article is about Bala Ji not Waqar Younis!

  • narbavi on December 19, 2012, 6:34 GMT

    @getsetgopk: Agree with u but still at the age of 37 playing all 3 formats, still bowling at around 140 when required and then ofcourse his batting is just too special, 44 test hundreds, almost 13k test runs and more than 10k odi runs and together almost 600 international wickets, at one point he used to open the bowling while batting at no.3 but as years passed his workload has been eased, and did u say kohli is not test match material? really? tell me how many pakistan batsmen at the moment are scorching the test arena?

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