Age: 34, Team: Tamil Nadu
“One moment you are on top whistling, then you are down and gone – that’s cricket for you.” Only L Balaji can say that statement and laugh. Disaster had gatecrashed when he had just begun to whistle. From being the highest wicket-taker among seamers from both teams in a home Test series against Pakistan in 2005, the ground slipped from under his feet in the same year as he was hit with a threatening spinal cord injury that cost him three years of cricket.
Paralysis, the doctors feared might kick in if he continued to be adamant about playing . The injury was so complex that they had said he should just be content that if everything goes well, he can at least watch cricket on the telly.
Balaji, however, was greedier. He wanted to play cricket, hid the severity of his injury from his parents, who he feared might panic and prevent him from playing again, had a surgery done in UK with only his sister aware, and somehow, against all odds, came back to play. And with that smile intact. It’s a remarkable story of perseverance and desire, and since he was always low-key, it was also a story that didn’t quite make the splashes it should have.
At 34 he has donned on a new role, and new dream. This year, he has been asked to not just be a player but also a mentor for the fast bowlers. With a repaired back, who knows how many years of sporting life he has ahead of him? “One, perhaps two years,” he says, “I want to leave Tamil Nadu after ensuring the team has atleast a couple of promising young fast bowlers, and a team that has a pride about representing the state. That will be my goal and legacy, I want to achieve.”
His hopes rest on young seamers — Aswin Christ, who is also closely watched by Glenn McGrath for his MRF Pace Academy, L Vignesh, and M Mohammed, from small town Dindigul.
Balaji has a tough path ahead. “I have to help them understand setting fields, how to think in spells rather than odd good balls, how to pace yourself according to situation, how to know when to attack and when to defend, how to bowl alongside a spinner, and how to out-think a batsman. If I can create bowlers who can think for themselves, I would have done my job.” There is one thing that continues to nag Balaji. “I have been part of four Ranji finals, and quite a few semi-finals, but have never known the feeling of lifting that trophy. I don’t know whether I will be able to but at least I want to help build a team that gets to taste that feeling.”