Lakshmipathy Balaji turned out to be the cynosure of all eyes during the Indian cricket team’s tour of Pakistan in 2004 with his on-field exploits so much so that the then president Gen Pervez Musharraf saluted his spirit and hailed him as a great soldier fighting bravely for the team. He was also cheered by girls when he visited the Wagah border and by a group of students at Lahore University, recalls cricket administrator Amrit Mathur, who was the team’s media manager, in his memoir “Pitchside: My Life in Cricket”.
In the book, Mathur brings alive insightful first-person accounts of some of Indian cricket’s most memorable moments with anecdotes, events and matches.
In the 2004 tour, India and Pakistan played five one-day international matches and three Tests. India won the ODI series 3-2 and the Test series 2-1.
After the second ODI in Rawalpindi, which India lost by 12 runs, Musharraf hosted a reception for the teams at the presidential palace in Islamabad.
“The players are told to leave their mobiles in the bus and names are tallied with a list and ticked off. Gifts for the president (BCCI mementos and a bat signed by the players, with the names written by V V S Laxman, who has neat handwriting) are taken away for security screening and will be delivered inside,” writes Mathur in the book, published by Westland Sports, an imprint of Westland Books.
“After a brief wait, the president strides in, impeccable in his crisp khaki uniform and black military boots. He appears taller than he looks on TV and wears his trousers high, which makes his legs look disproportionately long.
“The players line up for introductions and the president gives Sachin (Tendulkar) a long and vigorous handshake. After desultory yet polite conversation with the assembled guests, he walks to the centre of the hall and everyone gathers in a semicircle around him. Gifts are presented and the General thanks the team profusely. He proceeds to give a surprisingly accurate recap of the last two games,” the book says.
He praised Tendulkar and mentioned Mohammed Kaif’s stunning catch to dismiss Shoaib Malik that turned the first ODI in Karachi in India’s favour among others.
“But Musharraf’s best is reserved for Balaji, whom he hails as a great soldier, fighting bravely for his team even in a lost cause. As a soldier, he announces, not without a touch of drama, I salute his spirit,” Mathur writes.
“Musharraf’s charm offensive continues through the ‘chai’ ceremony. In what appears to be a carefully thought-through act, he mingles with the players, breaking protocol to make informal conversation. He requests Sachin for a photo, pats Balaji on the back and has a longish conversation with a beaming Parthiv Patel,” he adds.
The team also paid a visit to Wagah to witness the flag lowering ceremony.
Ironically, the Indian team was sitting on the Pakistan side.
“But there is no tension or discomfort because the Pakistani crowd happily greets the players. Soon, spectators on the Indian side spot the players among the Pakistanis. The loudest cheer from Lahore – and Amritsar – is reserved for Balaji, the latest superstar,” Mathur writes.
Balaji’s reaction when cheered by girls at Wagah was: “I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to hide”, the book says.
During the tour, Mathur on an invitation by the Lahore University of Management Sciences accompanied Rahul Dravid, Irfan Pathan, Ajit Agarkar and Balaji for an “apolitical cross cultural interactive exchange” with the students.
“As we arrive at the impressive building and walk up to the auditorium on the first floor, a surprise awaits us. The place is packed to capacity, with students sitting in the aisles and standing at the back. When we are ushered in, the hall breaks into shouts of Balaji Balaji, not dissimilar to the Sachin Sachin chant at Indian grounds,” Mathur recalls.
“Hearing this noisy reception, you’d imagine Balaji was a rockstar or the Big B himself, the reigning king of Hindi cinema,” he adds.
According to him, Balaji is cool and hot in Pakistan.
“The LUMS students, representing the modern face of Pakistan, are welcoming and extremely understanding. They listen to Dravid with respect, go crazy when Balaji smiles and present an altogether different side when Irfan speaks,” he says.
Later, Balaji commented about his cult status in Pakistan: “It is ok, but who will recognise me in Chennai?”
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