With good men, you become a good captain - Balaji
On Sunday afternoon, L Balaji, the Tamil Nadu captain, walked out of the visitors' dressing-room at the Wankhede stadium with just a white towel wrapped around his waist. Fresh out of the shower, after a two-hour long training session, Balaji wore an intense look rather than a relaxed one. He was busy trying to get the attention of Aushik Srinivas, Tamil Nadu's left-arm spinner. As he waved his arms at Aushik, the tattoos on both his biceps, which appear to be of sun gods and are a "symbol of tribal energy" according to Balaji, shone starkly in the afternoon sunshine.
Using vigorous gestures, Balaji told the 18-year-old Srinivas that he should not bowl on the legs of the batsman. He should instead focus on pitching it on middle and off to make the batsman play. Srinivas assured his captain that he had understood by nodding his head.
To see Balaji so involved, communicating with such intensity, and yet being so simple and clear are indications of how much he is enjoying the captaincy. Tamil Nadu have usually preferred batting captains, and if not for an injury to S Badrinath at the start of the season, Balaji would not have been made captain. Balaji says there are advantages to being a bowler and a captain, but more importantly that when you have "good men around you, you are a good captain."
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, he explains his thoughts on leadership, why he will never stop staring at batsmen to whom he has just bowled a bouncer and how much it hurts to have never won a Ranji Trophy.
To begin with can you explain what you were telling Srinivas? You looked really intense.
I am quite keen on him [Srinivas] doing well. He is just 18 years old and is playing only his third season. He needs my guidance. I need him to bowl the way the team wants. On the first day at the Wankhede there won't be much turn. The pitch has a good amount of moisture and carry; as a bowler you have to be a bit smart and bowl a line where the ball is being taken away from the body. Aushik has the natural ability to drift the ball in and take it away. So I have been asking him to bowl a specific length on the off stump. I told him to do it for just one session and he would notice the difference: the batsman struggles immediately. Aushik just needs to change his line, not his length. You have to adjust to the conditions. That is why when I came out (of the shower) I checked on him, and he was not doing it.
This is an inexperienced bowling attack apart from me. So I need to set the targets and game-plans, and decide when to push hard and when to pull back.
This is your first season as Tamil Nadu captain. How have you coped with the job?
Everything happened so fast. Badri [S Badrinath] got injured and was out of the first three rounds, and I was named captain at the last minute. This year we brought a lot of young faces in - offspinners Malolan Rangarajan and Sunny Gupta, allrounder Baba Aparajith, medium-pacer J Kaushik, batsman Kaushik Gandhi and left-arm spinner Rahil Shah - and it was important that these guys understood the basic principles of four-day cricket straightaway.
As a Test cricketer I always paid attention to three things: courage, which builds confidence; intelligence, which helps the player in reading games and game-plans, understanding his own mind and being aware of what is happening on the field; and skills, and honing and developing them. These are the right things to teach youngsters. I felt that I should be taking the responsibility of helping them learn these things
As a captain you are unique in that you are a bowler captain, something Tamil Nadu have not had for a long time if you rule out Robin Singh who was an allrounder. Do you think you can relate to the bowlers and get the best out of them?
It is not an easy job to get 20 wickets on domestic pitches. It takes a lot of hard work. You need the mental stamina to stay out there and bowl 200 out of the 360 overs as a team. You have to accept that first. I have a very young and inexperienced team. Despite that we managed to bowl sides out twice in the first three matches of the season.
In contrast to your bowling unit, you have a wealth of experience and talent in the batting department. That must help, doesn't it?
You cannot ask for more: we have got experience, we have got players who have the required mental strength in Badri, Abhinav [Mukund] and everyone else; we have a wicketkeeper batsman (Dinesh Karthik), which allows us to play five bowlers. The good thing about our batsmen is they are always fighting hard to prove themselves. I have faith in my batting order. They don't need any guidance from the captain. They just need a platform.
Can you talk about your own bowling? After all the injuries you have had over the years, how do you manage your workload?
My intensity is what keeps me going on. That helps me as I am an attacking bowler. I am a player who wants to win, so each and every game is a challenge for me. Mentally I have become more aware of how to bowl my spells according to the conditions and what lengths to bowl on particular pitches. I have had 11 years of learning, but at heart I am still the same youngster who wants to run in hard, bowl a bouncer and look the batsman in the eye. I will not take punches lying down.
As far as the workload goes I manage it better now. Since I missed three years of cricket due to a career-threatening spine injury, I am now more aware of how much my body can handle. Hence, I sat out the third day of the quarter-final against Maharasthra, as we were in a safe position in the match, and I did not want to push myself too much and risk a severe injury.
Tamil Nadu have clashed with Mumbai in several important matches, including in two successive finals, one of which you played. Does it hurt that you have never beaten Mumbai when it matters?
We know what Mumbai is all about. But we do not need to focus too much on them. As long as you take every match as an important one you need not look at the opposition's players and the results they have achieved. You need to persist, persevere and do best what you enjoy, love and are passionate about. If you do anything less it is an injustice to your potential. You have to play as a team, be as a team, and enjoy as a team whatever happens.
In your ten years with Tamil Nadu you have never won a Ranji Trophy. That must hurt.
Definitely, it does hurt. For me, Badri, and anyone who has been there for at least ten years, a Ranji title will be the best thing to happen to us. But it is not an individual thing. It is a team which has to enjoy and deliver. That is an area where Mumbai have an edge over opponents. They must be doing some things right as a team.
You are enjoying the leadership role then?
When you have good men around you, you become a good captain. As long as it lasts, I will enjoy it, but even if I am not named captain next season I will continue playing and leading in my own way.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo