Balaji set for his first-class century
Dindigul, a city of historic significance in southern Tamil Nadu, will host its maiden first-class game on Sunday when Tamil Nadu take on dark horses Jammu & Kashmir in a Ranji Trophy Group A game. The match will also be L Balaji's 100th first-class outing.
"It is indeed a great honour to have played a hundred games. It is not something that a fast bowler can achieve in Indian conditions. I am proud to have been able to last for such a long time," Balaji told ESPNcricinfo.
Balaji made his first-class debut 13 years ago but a back injury in 2005 meant that for the next three years, he could hardly play a competitive game. Between October 2005 and November 2006, his lone first-class appearance was the Irani Cup tie in October 2006, before his injury recurred.
Balaji remodelled his action and played international cricket even after a three-year injury layoff. Asked about the significance of this feat considering the prolonged hiatus, Balaji expressed gratitude towards all those who helped him come back stronger. "To get through those three years was the toughest time of my life," he said. "I was not sure about playing cricket again since my back kept breaking again and again. I felt really great that I came back harder and struggled again before playing international cricket. I would sincerely like to thank my family, my close friends, my coaches and all my well-wishers who believed in me and stood behind me all the time."
Balaji admitted that the Indian Premier League's inaugural edition in 2008 gave him the belief that he could still get the better of top-notch batsmen. "Post-injury was a big comeback. I didn't play for two years and IPL was my re-entry into competitive cricket. Since there were so many great batsmen from all over the world playing the tournament, it helped me get confident that I can really compete against the best in the world. Performing there really helped motivate me for playing for India again. Thankfully, I could achieve that."
When Balaji emerged on the domestic scenes in 2001-02, he was termed as the fastest bowler who could swing the ball both ways. But his international debut turned out to be forgettable as Chirs Gayle and Wavell Hinds went after him in an ODI in the West Indies.
"When I played for the first time, I realised that only skills weren't good enough to succeed at the international level," Balaji said. "You have to be fast in all the aspects, mentally as well as in terms of skills. You have to read a batsman's mind quickly and change your plans accordingly. I went back and worked on the mental aspect which helped immensely when I came back after a year.
"When I re-entered [the international arena] in 2003, I was ready mentally as well. I had realised what exactly it means to take it session by session and how to implement."
Tamil Nadu didn't have an ideal start to the season as they lost to defending champions Karnataka last week, folding for 82 in the fourth innings. Balaji is banking on the team using the home advantage against Jammu & Kashmir, who surprised domestic giants Mumbai in the opening round.
"It's a new stadium, they inaugurated it last year. It's a fantastic venue and I hope that there will be lots of spectators to cheer for us and we can play some good cricket and pull things back," he said.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo