Lakshmipathi Balaji’s infectious smile is back. The smile that became famous and popular when he toured Pakistan with the Indian team in 2004 was missing recently. He tested positive for Covid when with the Chennai Super Kings as their bowling coach during the IPL. After being shifted from Delhi to earlier this month along with the batting coach, Australia’s Mike Hussey in an air ambulance, the 39-year-old former India fast bowler completed his hotel quarantine more than a week ago and is back home with his loved ones after testing negative. Hussey has also reached Australia and is serving his mandatory 14-day quarantine before heading home. “I have recovered completely and am back to my family. Thankfully, with very mild symptoms, I have recovered fast. All within the CSK team were worried about the growing number of cases,” Balaji told news18.com in an exclusive chat.
Now beaming with confidence and the energy back, Balaji, who played eight Tests, 30 ODIs and five T20Is, before becoming a fast bowling coach for Tamil Nadu Ranji team and Chennai Super Kings, talks about Indian pace bowling, its healthy scenario and looking ahead at the England tour.
The Indian pace bowling is at its best now; it can take on any team anywhere in the world. How do you look at it?
The current Indian pace attack has evolved over a period. There was a role model in Kapil Dev in the 1980s and later we had Manoj Prabhakar and Javagal Srinath. These people set the tone in the 1980s and 1990s as fast bowlers. Look at the number of players who have made their debuts in the last five or six years. It is large. They have a lot of opportunities across all formats. If you are able to get recognition at the first-class level or the IPL, you are not going to be ignored. Many missed out in the 1980s and 1990s. In the recent past, the best thing that has happened is the rotation of players. A good talent is hardly missed. The opportunities and talents are justified.
In the previous eras, injury for one gives an opportunity for another. With an exceptional first-class record, you played for India ‘A’. Some have finished as only as India ‘A’ players. You waited and waited for an opportunity till someone got injured. Today, it is about rotation. You have a wider circle, a lot of players get to experience international cricket. They are also thriving on that. It is about the right talent getting the right opportunity at the right time during the peak of their careers. It is not anymore about getting selected prematurely or after their prime.
This is a major transformation of the current crop of fast bowlers in India. Earlier, nine out of 10 youngsters wanted to become a Virat Kohli or a Sachin Tendulkar or an MS Dhoni. Nowadays, they want to be like Jasprit Bumrah, Mohd Shami or Zaheer Khan. The importance of fast bowling is defined with Bumrah’s pace, Shami’s modern-day skill sets, Ishant Sharma’s huge experience. T Natarajan, in recent times, has gone from a remote place in Tamil Nadu to playing international cricket, filling in the void of a left-arm seamer. All these are a result of the evolution of fast bowlers and which is why India is able to take 20 wickets in Tests consistently.
The game has become fast-paced and given the bowlers a chance to thrive. A skilful bowler has the opportunity to take wickets. Every country thrives on T20 cricket. Very few still put first-class cricket on the top pedestal, like Australia and England. The talent in India is abundant, given an opportunity, they just grab it. The entire system – the NCA, the first-class structure, the IPL – has helped too. Lesser fancied teams have become dominant forces in domestic cricket, say Vidarbha, Gujarat and Saurashtra winning Ranji Trophy titles in the recent past. Fast bowlers have emerged from good first-class structure, even though they had to sometimes bowl on dust bowls.
Earlier, when the main fast bowlers broke down due to injury, the reserves were not that good enough. Now there is stiff competition for places, isn’t it?
In my era, seniors like Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad were on the last phase of their international careers, and we had five-six fast bowlers like Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Munaf Patel, myself. There was always a major battle to fight – injury. There were only two formats. If you were injured, you did not have a simple format where you could prove yourself fit and come back quickly, like they do today. Nowadays, you can test yourself by bowling in the T20s – the IPL window is a big blessing where the selectors can watch your fitness. Domestic T20s, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, is a huge bonus.
T20 leagues have come up at the local level to prove fitness. You can make comebacks to international cricket in a quick time with these many opportunities. Earlier, you had to wait for a season to prove your fitness and make a comeback. Even if you have performed well in your last international assignment, you have to start all over again. Now, they have different bowling units to work around – you have six-seven T20 specialist bowlers, five-six separate bowlers for ODIs and Tests, where you give importance to skills. The example of Ishant Sharma proving his fitness by bowling in T20s to be eligible to bowl in Tests is a classic example of how quick a fast bowler makes a return to the longer format.
He is not left out; the options are plenty. That keeps the pacers motivated. They are also under pressure and need that sort of pressure to thrive. IPL gives you an opportunity to bowl to the best, stay in rhythm. This keeps the bowlers in a competitive atmosphere constantly. A Bhuvneshwar Kumar or a Hardik Pandya can make a comeback after missing out on injury for a year. They can be monitored regularly, T20 gives you that opportunity.
India do have good pace bowling talent to even rotate them, isn’t it, say like England?
The number of Tests England play in a year is more than what India play. They have a longevity programme, especially with proven performers like James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who between them have more than 1,100 Test wickets. In India, one has to study how many overs fast bowlers bowl in Tests in India and overseas. You could rotate players to bowl in home Test series and also overseas.
In Australia and England, the load will be much more for fast bowlers than when they are bowling in India. You could have a separate fast bowling management system for India and overseas. Spinners will have more workload in India and less overseas. England rested James Anderson for the second Test even though he took wickets in the first Test in India earlier this year. They don’t necessarily follow the system where the main bowler plays in all the matches. It is about how effective one can be in a series, you don’t want your pace to slow down.
At present, Shami and Bumrah are the most skilled pacers we have and we could play one at a time. Even Ishant could be rotated. There are other fast bowlers like Bhuvi, Shardul Thakur, Mohammad Siraj among others. In the bargain, you end up widening the talent pool; they perform with the same intensity. You need to manage the fast bowlers to be fresh and sustain them over a long period of time. You need to find a formula that makes them sustainable. You don’t want them to play in one series and they break down. Importance needs to be given to maintain their skills, their art of taking wickets, maintaining their physical demand of generating pace and also recovery.
Do you mean to say there is room to have a separate set of fast bowlers to bowl only in Indian conditions and another set to bowl overseas?
I am sure in the future, everything will be compartmentalised. The opportunities will such that the skills will also evolve. A particular bowler will be groomed for a particular series. You need to get that kind of reputation to gain that place. There are exceptions that any day you give Bumrah the ball, he will deliver. They also need the appetite to bowl. There could be occasions when they could get frustrated and get disoriented. If you balance it out, with a good formula, the pacers can do the routines without losing anything. You need to create a competitive atmosphere to keep the pacer’s appetite going. How you evolve around this formula, how you add more resources will be more challenging.
Until the England home series this year, Bumrah played all his Tests for three years only overseas. And, it seemed that India did not miss him. That also speaks well about Indian pace bowling, doesn’t it?
Of course. With Bumrah’s talent, you have to see a similar replacement for him. He cannot be identically replaced as he is an exceptionally talented bowler. He is a match-winner. At the same time, you have an opportunity for an identical talent to thrive, say Siraj. The ball pretty much comes out of the hand perpendicular, angles away from the left-hander, straightens for the right-hander. They are almost identical, not exactly the same. The ball path, dismissal patterns are similar – LBW, bowled, caught behind. If Bumrah is not there, who gives almost the same, if not exactly the same, performance? Find a formula. Similar tactical discussions will help the captain, the team management, not go straight into defence but look for the offence if Bumrah is not there. India’s Test series win in Australia is a classic case. Without Bumrah and Shami, the Indian bowlers still managed to take 20 wickets. That was tactics and skills matching at the right time.
Has Bumrah taken over from Ishant Sharma as the No. 1 pacer in the Indian team?
You cannot keep Ishant away. Somebody with 100 Tests behind him, 300-plus wickets, you need his experience in England, where India has the World Test Championship final first and then the five-Test series. You need his experience to handle the dry phases of a Test, where you wait and watch, time-game happens. The experienced bowlers know how to handle such dry phases when things unfold. Say, on the third day of the match, considered the moving day of a Test, when nothing much is planned. You need the experience to handle the third day – say one spell at a time, maiden overs at a time, slowly work around the marathon. Ishant has seen a lot of such situations. There is absolutely no doubt that Bumrah will take over from Ishant, he will take time to overcome such situations where he will not only show how to do it but also take them along to do it.
Is Sharma the leader of your pack, or Bumrah?
At the moment, I will go with Ishant, Bumrah and Shami as the top three. There is always going to be a selection dilemma, a good dilemma, where the other exceptional talent will put you under pressure. I would look at how the English pitches behave. Ishant has done well there, bowled match-winning spells there, toured with the Test teams three times there. I will use his English county experience of the recent past (Sussex, 2018). He is the leader of the pack. I will put Bumrah and Shami with Ishant, three totally different bowlers where Ishant can play defence and the other two can be on the offence. Ishant with the new ball can be on the offence against the left-handers. I will fall back upon Ishant when the situation goes out of control. He can put things back in place.
Where does that leave with Umesh Yadav or Bhuvneshwar Kumar?
They all have the resources to fill in. You look at the WTC final as a one-off Test, not look at England five-Test series now. Take one game at a time. These three (Bumrah, Sharma, Shami) will have to start in England against New Zealand in the WTC final.
Bowling in England may not be the same as bowling in Australia. How should one be bowling there? India have not won a Test series in England in their last three visits (1-0 win in 2007 followed by 0-4 in 2011, 1-3 in 2014 and 1-4 losses in 2018)?
Batting is the key in England. They can put the opposition under pressure. India may have lost 1-4 last time but it was a closely fought series. Playing in England is totally different from playing in Australia. In Australia, the ball comes to the bat. The condition does not determine the skills of the bowler. In England, the conditions put a lot of pressure on the bowlers, making them work harder. A bowler who is flexible in offence and defence will thrive in England, knowing exactly when to attack, when to play quiet cricket, and seize the opportunity whenever it arises. It may look like a wicket-taking session but turns out to be an absolute belter. It may be overcast but nothing happens. Instant decision making skills are key. The bowling lengths will be tested, there is slope.
Indian pacers against New Zealand first, and later England in the five-Test series. Whose is stronger?
The fast bowling unit can put the opposition under pressure. This is the major opportunity for the Indian pacers to do what they could not in the previous tours in recent times. One has to stay fit from the first day to the last day of the Test series. The bowlers need to stay hungrier, the quicker you adapt, the more successful they become. Successful bowlers in England over the years including Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman, Zaheer Khan, have only got better as the series progressed to reach the peak. If one bowler hits that peak for India, he would end up with 25 or 30 wickets in the series with other pacers chipping in.
I believe Bumrah would be that bowler with others bowling around him. If he remains fit and peaks correctly in the series, wickets will come by. India’s three-man pace attack are competent enough to take 20 wickets. India, Australia, England and New Zealand have the top fast bowling attacks in the world. Pace, skill and seam wise, I will put India ahead of the rest.
How crucial is a left-arm pacer in a bowling attack? Do you think India is missing out on one?
When the top-order is full of right-handers, left-armer makes a huge difference, his natural angle which is blindsighted to the batsmen. Exceptional players like Wasim Akram or Zaheer Khan can make an impact against any left-hander or right-hander. Left-armers are rare. How often do you face left-armers in your career? Very rare. Left-armers give variety through their angle.
Have you had a chance to talk to Sam Curran, when he was with CSK, about the rotation policy adopted by England? He is part of the England bowling set-up in all the three formats.
England have separate models for white ball and red-ball cricket. The leadership also changes (with Joe Root captaining in Tests and Eoin Morgan in limited-overs). The coaching methods also change for white ball and red ball. England give importance to the traditional format but also experimented with white ball and with great results, winning the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. They are one of the top teams to beat. They have Jofra Archer for pace, they have so many England county matches. They handle their core players well.
Schedule is drawn for each and every individual. James Anderson went to play county cricket in his attempt to come back after injury. We need to understand our own model, what works best for us. How best can we use Bumrah, how best Shami can be used? What is the identical alternative for Bumrah? What is the identical alternative for Shami? Siraj and Deepak Chahar or Thakur could be identical replacements, respectively. This keeping in mind the international results are not compromised.
You being the bowling coach of CSK, do you also prepare the international bowlers for the future Test series, like say Sam Curran and Thakur for the upcoming series in England?
No. with so much investment in the players for T20 franchise cricket, the players only focus on T20, not for future international assignments. I guess every franchise follows this. They have been invested in bringing their brand of cricket to meet the demands of T20 cricket for those two months. You cannot buy in with other brands of cricket. Once out of the IPL, they can always fall back upon the other brand of cricket. The core components are maintained with the original identities that the players are known for over the years. Skills will be the same. In T20, flexibility is needed more. Many aspects need to be looked into, in IPL. A pacer may be asked to bowl only the death overs; or only with the new ball, not in the death; you may be asked to bowl only one over on that particular day. It is about that brand of cricket in the highly competitive IPL. You need to find a way to thrive in that demanding situation. Nobody comes there to prepare for an international assignment. It is a professional league.