A tale of two comebacks
After a breathtaking ODI series, if the two teams needed any motivation before the start of the Tests, it has arrived through reinforcements to the Test squad. One each in particular for the two sides. Men who lost years in their prime to injuries. Men who came back transformed: one with a changed bowling action, the other with a different role. They will both be looking to fulfil primarily the third pace bowler's responsibility for their teams. For inspiration, look no further than L Balaji and James Franklin.
Two years ago, Franklin was struggling to get through the 2007 World Cup. In the game against Bangladesh, he had to go off the field because of what seemed like a migraine attack but was actually much worse. "I get tunnel vision and a headache that spikes me in the head," Franklin said then. "In the drinks break I was fine, but when I tried to focus on something it was all blurred. I bowled an over after that. It was a blur and in the later part it was all blue vision."
Franklin has had such attacks since he was 12, three times on the field. But what really laid him low was a crippling knee injury. Six months later he learned he required surgery.
Around the same time Balaji, already out of international action because of his back injuries, was not sure which way his rehabilitation was heading. That was when he was told he needed to undergo back surgery. Before he went in for the operation, he needed a reassurance from mentor and friend WV Raman that he would be able to bowl again.
Franklin has been ahead of Balaji in terms of rehabilitation and comeback. After the knee surgery, Franklin said he wanted to make a comeback as an allrounder, not as the same left-arm swing bowler who could bat. He worked hard on his batting, trying to become the "50-50" allrounder. Sure enough, he scored 219 against Auckland in the initial part of this season to back up his claims. The reward came in the form of two Tests against West Indies at the end of last year.
"[I bring in] just a little bit of variation," Franklin said. "Left-armer, I can swing the ball so it'll be a different angle of attack for the batsmen to come up against. I'd like to think I can do the job both with the ball and the bat."
Franklin has taken only 14 wickets in seven matches in his comeback season but has averaged 69 with the bat, scoring two hundreds and two fifties. "My focus this season hasn't changed so much," he said. "It's just been a case of being able to get myself in and the runs have been forthcoming, so it's just a continuation."
Unlike Franklin, who is almost a sure starter in the New Zealand XI, Balaji will most likely be competing against Munaf Patel for a final place. But it's no less a credit to him that he is in the squad. Back injuries and surgeries do not leave even the strongest of men unaffected. Balaji has come back with a modified action, running in a unique fashion, tiptoeing for the first few steps and then slowly easing through. The big challenge was to get through the season and repeat the restructured action over and over again. The back injury has not affected Balaji's wrists and his release, which produces the swing that got him 36 wickets at 17.5 on unresponsive wickets in the Ranji Trophy. As a reward he was selected for the ODIs in Sri Lanka, and now finds himself in New Zealand.
"[I am] feeling good [to be back]," Balaji said. "I have worked very hard in the last two years, and I am looking forward to the big series. It's good to be coming back to the side and I am enjoying the team atmosphere."
Balaji realises the scale of his comeback, the hard work that has gone in to just come level with his team-mates and opponents. "I haven't set any expectations," he said. "I am just enjoying my bowling so far, given whatever I have come through in the last two years."
The last two years, both Franklin and Balaji will know, are history. Test cricket is a tough place. Come Wednesday, if both play, the Seddon Park pitch will make no allowances for their past troubles. After having been through so much, ironically the Test is just starting.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo