‘Smiling assassin’ Balaji in need of new weapons

Balaji hit Suresh Raina on the gloves with a perfect short-pitched delivery during a practice session.

Colombo: Lakshmipathy Balaji and Sri Lanka seem to be made for each other. Like the people of this Emerald Isle, Balaji is softspoken, easy going and seems to have a permanent smile on his face. Even on the field, his sauntering run-up betrays no menace.

But during India’s optional practice session at the Nondescripts Cricket Club ground here on Tuesday, Balaji hit Suresh Raina on the gloves with a perfect short-pitched

The left-handed batsman, never the most comfortable against the bouncing ball, dropped the bat and took a few moments to gather his wits. Till then, the Tamil Nadu seamer had jogged up to the batsman and enquired about his well-being.

Very soon, the 1000-watt smile was back on his face.

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In Monday’s warm-up against Pakistan, Kamran Akmal had launched into him and Balaji ended up giving away 41 runs in his four overs.

With both Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan showing a tendency to leak runs, Balaji’s slower ones might be getting a tad predictable, and getting a few more tricks out of his bag — such as the bouncer — will only help India’s ambitions of regaining the World Twenty20 title.

India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni came close to declaring that Balaji would play India’s opener against Afghanistan on Wednesday when he said: “My ideal bowling combination will be three pacers, one spinner and part-timers.” The focus in last week’s T20 against New Zealand in Chennai might have been on Yuvraj Singh’s return to the international fold, but Balaji was also quietly making his T20 debut.

This was only his second competitive match for India since a career-threatening back injury in 2005 had seemingly cut short a promising career.

He had to undergo surgeries, a full cycle of rehabilitation and also remodel his action in order to stage a comeback. When he returned to bowling, his run-up had slowed down considerably, and his pace had also dropped.

But Balaji worked hard and had a great first IPL in 2008, including a hat-trick, and captained Tamil Nadu with distinction while still taking wickets by the bucketfuls in Ranji Trophy cricket. This year, he was one of the stars in Kolkata Knight Riders’ run to the title, setting the benchmark for frugality with an economy rate of just 5.40.

And that is exactly what Dhoni will need from him given India’s bowling weakness.


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