One of the more endearing sights in Indian cricket is back. To see L Balaji smiling on a cricket field, after a painful two-year hiatus, is reassuring. For, on various occasions during that time he has not been sure if he would be able to bowl again. For, when he went for the surgery on his back, he needed that very reassurance.
"I told Raman [WV, the Tamil Nadu coach] before I went for surgery: 'I just want to bowl again'. Raman told me, 'You will come back, and you will bowl'. That was a big boost." It wasn't as simple as that, though. "If I were to go back," says Raman, "to what all happened when he was told he would have to go for a surgery, it would take me two days to rattle on."
But all that is history now, and Balaji doesn't want to go back. "The last two years have been really tough for me, when I was struggling to even bowl," he says. "Those are the moments I don't even want to recollect."
His comeback started during the IPL, but then again so did Ashish Nehra's. Both of them impressed, bowling four overs a day, but the real test would be to bowl 20 to 30 overs a day on unresponsive tracks. Nehra broke down again, but Balaji has gone on through the league stages and the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy. When it comes to unhelpful tracks, none come worse than the Chinnaswamy pitch, where Tamil Nadu played Bengal.
Chasing a dream after years spent in wilderness - they last came close to a Ranji Trophy title in 2002-03, losing to Mumbai in the final and have even had to fight relegation in the latter years - Tamil Nadu had conceded the first-innings lead to a spirited Bengal and had only four-and-a-half sessions to bowl them out and get the runs. It needed a big-hearted effort from somewhere, and - risking disrespect towards the other players in the game - it could have come from only one man. Raman agrees. "Either Bala was going to do it for us or it was not going to happen. To be fair to others, they are not incisive or as experienced as he is. So Bala was our only chance."
And how Bala did it. He may not want to remember the horrors he has gone through in the last two years, but it is worth recollecting the magic ball he bowled to Inzamam-ul-Haq in the Rawalpindi Test on the 2003-04 tour. Ritam Kundu, the Bengal off-break bowler and lower-order batsman, didn't deserve this: the ball coming from wide of the crease, angling in to him, and moving away to take the off stump. Inzamam was better: he had managed to edge it.
Balaji did that and more on a pitch where taking wickets in quick succession was next to impossible. He took five of them for seven runs, whereupon Tamil Nadu went on to make an incredible comeback and make their way through to the semi-final. It wasn't easy: he looked innocuous at times, bowling in the mid-120s and not getting any help from the pitch. But he persevered. In the first innings, he bowled what looked like a slower legcutter to Manoj Tiwary, which jagged in and bowled him. Tiwary was closing in on 150, but nobody expects googlies from pace bowlers.
Quite interestingly, Balaji compares this match with the Rawalpindi Test, but for different reasons. "This is one of my best performances," he says. "One of the best matches I have played so far. Maybe the third Test in Pakistan comes closer. This time we hardly had any chance of coming back.
"Unless and until, I feel, if I don't win a match, that performance is not going to make a difference. If you ask Sachin [Tendulkar], he made a hundred on a [Chennai] track [against England] to see India home in a chase of 387 when nobody thought India could do it. That will be the most satisfactory moment for him. It's the same for me: when the things were really looking low, and I stood up and said: 'I will do my job. I will do something to take the team to the next level.'"
He has come back with a new action, where he sort of tiptoes for the first few steps - almost as if unsure of the ground he is going to run on, before easing in. This is something he used to do when he was younger. "I recollected my old action and all that stuff," he says. "I had remodelled it a little bit. I have to be much straighter."
In his first season back Balaji has taken 31 wickets at 16.64, none more important and wily than the eight he took against Bengal. Apart from the fact that he has played through the season, the biggest challenge would have been to sustain the action. Raman thinks he has done that well. "From first game to now, he has improved quite a lot. It's also a mental confirmation that his body can hold out, and also he is not going back to the whole thing. In terms of cricket, it was important he was able to reproduce again and again the restructured action.
"That's getting better and better, which means he will get better results with passage of time. That's not good news for the batsmen across the country, but it is very good news for us."
Though not racing too far ahead, Balaji is happy with his comeback so far. "I have so far bowled around 160 overs," he says. "I am really enjoying my bowling, my long spells."
Raman puts his achievement into perspective: "Putting it simply I don't see many guys doing it: coming back, first of all, and then working so hard with so much dedication, and also not allowing frustration to get the better of him, and to do what he has been doing all season on placid tracks. I really don't see many doing it."
At the same time, this might only be half the journey. He is not near his best as yet, but Raman believes he is only going to get better. Along the way, if he can bowl more such inspirational spells, that beaming smile will stay on display.