<
>

Balaji's journey from insomnia to a debut five-for

L Balaji: 'To play a Ranji game was definitely a big step-up. It was not boyish cricket anymore' ESPNcricinfo Ltd/ Siddarth Ravindran

Tamil Nadu v Goa, Chennai, 2001-02

My maiden first-class match actually helped me make my Ranji debut. It was against a tough Colombo side, which had around nine Test players - (Rangana) Herath, (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, (Thilan) Samaraweera, (Jehan) Mubarak, (Michael) Vandort, Ian Daniel, (Upul) Chandana and Prasanna Jayawardene. It was the MJ Gopalan Trophy and was watched by a good crowd. I bowled a wonderful spell I think: 16-10-16-4. That gave me an understanding of where I belong.

I was also playing league cricket in Chennai, which was almost equal to Ranji Trophy. Vikram Rathore, Zaheer Khan, Rahul Dravid, Dinesh Mongia, Pankaj Dharmani played for different teams and it was very competitive. I was good enough in the league and believed I could do well in the Ranji Trophy also.

After playing league cricket and Gopalan Trophy, I was expecting to be there for the match against Goa. If I say I wasn't nervous before my Ranji debut, I will be lying. Tamil Nadu had a lot of stars in the team. Robin Singh was the captain, there was Aashish Kapoor, Hemang Badani, Sadagoppan Ramesh, Sridharan Sharath. All were inspirational figures in the Tamil Nadu dressing room.

I remember I was in my teens - I was 19 back then - in 2001. I was young and vibrant and was reasonably quick. I just wanted to take the ball and keep bowling the whole day. Today things have changed, in those days it [making a Ranji debut] was even more difficult. In those days you just wanted to share the dressing room with those Tamil Nadu legends and repeat what they do. To represent my state was a big pride and honour for me.

R Ramkumar, the left-arm spinner, was also making his debut in same match. Ram is my room-mate from the [corporate team] Chemplast days. He is one of my closest friends from there onwards. Me and Ram were practicing slides before the game at the Chemplast ground, by around 6pm in the evening. It was something new to us. That was the last time I practiced sliding. We also bowled for two-three hours.

I was very excited and waiting for the next day to start. My sleep was disturbed the night before the match. I got up and looked a few times at the clock, whether it had hit 6am - the time for me to get ready and go to the match.

To play a Ranji game was definitely a big step-up. It was not boyish cricket anymore, it was about stepping into the shoes of a man. It was going to get tougher. The wicket had decent carry; Chennai wickets generally don't offer much to the seamers. I got a five-for in the second innings against Goa after two in the first innings.

I remember my first-innings wickets were "bowleds". One of the seniors came and told me "finish it off", and the last batsman [Kalekar] was bowled.

In the second innings, we were going for the innings victory, but couldn't get them all out. In those days, I used to bowl with the short run-up as well as the long run-up. I mixed them up and bowled one long spell in a row. I tried everything to get the outright victory - yorkers, back-of-the-hand slower balls, bouncers, variations. I remember Robin [Singh] telling me not to use many slower balls in four-day cricket and take genuine fast bowler's wickets like "bowleds" and caught off seam-up. I took it more seriously after that, because the slower ball is more like a defensive ball. Even in Test cricket, you don't get much wickets with the slower ball.

That was my first five-wicket haul. I used to collect my five-wicket-haul balls during my club cricket days. Later I lost the habit of collecting balls, after I got into international cricket.

My Ranji debut was a good boost and, from thereon, it was about taking one step at a time and getting better with experience.

As told to Deivarayan Muthu