Smitten by the cricket bug at the age of 5, P Balachandran pursued the game with supreme passion in all possible roles he could. He played club cricket, represented Kerala Ranji squad, assisted trainers, penned articles on cricket and transformed himself into a coach. The veteran sportsperson, who completes 50 years in cricket, is still energetic and carries with him the adoration for the game. In a free-wheeling chat, the former coach of Kerala cricket team, shares with Mathrubhumi his memories, admiration for the game and advice to the new generation cricketers.

Entry to the world of cricket?

For me it was a natural entry. I was born at Tripunithura -- a place with a rich cricketing culture. Pooja cricket has been organised here for more than 60 years. For me, the tournament was the spark. My father and uncle were associated with Tripunithura cricket club and also the tournament. At the age of 5, I was allowed to enter the ground. Hence I got opportunity to see good cricket, talk about it and mingle with cricketers. So, in total, it was a smooth entry. However, like any other player, I had to wait for my chance and worked hard to earn a recognition. I was passionate and I believe that is why I am able to continue in the field even after many years.

P BalachandranMoments of playing career that you cherish?

In my younger days, there were inter-zone matches unlike the present inter-district contests. The performance in these matches were the criteria for selection to state team. Ernakulam belonged to the central zone and I started playing the Ernakulam district league in 1968. Open trials were conducted and they were the selection criteria performance based on league matches and tournaments. Based on my performance in Pooja tournament, I got a call-up to the junior zonal team. After 2-3 years, I had a good season.  I hit a century against Andhra and another one versus Tamil Nadu, which earned me a Ranji cap. I represented Kerala for 4-5 seasons. Between I had a fantastic season. Next year, in 1982, I was added to the south zone team for Duleep Trophy led by Gundappa Viswanath. I played along with 7-8 prominent faces of the national team. By then, I had shifted to Madras as part of my job. Madras had a professional set up and I played there for a few years. By then my passion for the game grew manifold. Hence, immediately after my playing career ended, I did one-year diploma course in coaching from National Institute of Sports and donned the hat of a coach, which according to me was a planned transformation.

About the most influential person?

If I take a look at my progress in cricket career, I am indebted to Balan Pandit. In my childhood, he was a batting idol. As far as Kerala is concerned, he was a superstar. Apart from this, he was a gifted trainer too. Later, in my teenage, I got a chance to attend his coaching camp. He liked the way I played and took extra care of me. Not only did he impart batting tips but valuable lessons to approach the game. He played in Bombay and Kent county team in England. He was the wicket keeper of the Kent squad starring legends like Jim Laker. He had vast experience and shared the same with us youngsters. Once he traveled as our team coach. Besides, when Kerala U-19 team toured in 1989, I was the coach whereas Balan Pandit was the team manager. We traveled for two-and-a-half month together and the trip showed me how committed he was. Though I had a different batting style, I always attempted to imbibe the lessons he taught. As a coach, he was a role model for me. He used to point out even minute facts. Despite being a diploma holder from NIA and certification from NCA, I consider the practical experiences imparted by him priceless.

P Balachandran

Your advice to budding cricketers?

No doubt cricket has nowadays become a mean of decent living. However, don’t think that all those entering the game can make a living out of it. I have trained a lot of youngsters over the years. My first advice to each of them was to maintain a balance between their studies and cricket. If a youngster turns up saying that he is sacrificing his studies for cricket, no club or administrator should ever encourage him. It will be the greatest harm you are doing to his life. Nowadays, children start playing serious cricket at the age of 10-12 years. His/her performance can be analysed after 3-4 years. Discussions with the coach is vital. Only if he/she showing any sort of progress, then the timing of practice needs to be increased. We can predict the growth of a player at least by 19 years. Until then. 3-4 hours of practice is enough. Don’t encourage anybody who says that he wishes to play for India. Let him evolve. However, you have to do everything to secure your life. Dravid, Laxman, Kumble etc. have proved this theory with their life.

A lot of your trainees have made a mark at national level?

Being a trainer, I never like to be claim that I have created a player. Too many factors make a perfect player and too many persons have contributed their part. It is because of their talent and hard work and determination, they earn the honours. I just played my part. That’s all. Indeed, players trained by me have made a mark at different levels for the state and country. I’m contended that I could give inputs to improve their game. They always keep the regard.

How should the attitude towards cricket be?

Now, cricket has turned immensely popular in India. Over the years, we have developed a culture of idolizing cricketers. Hence anyone steps into the ground wants to be a Sachin, Dhoni or Kohli. They want to play for India and so do their parents too. Almost everyone is attending the training bearing this pressure. The important and crucial fact is that you need the basic talent. Along with that, certain other factors too have to be in your favour --the proper mode of training, strong foundation, calculated plans for continuation of practice. They should have big dreams, the right attitude and patience to wait for the opportunities. Some may be hasty and they leave disheartened. Sports or cricket is not their cup. Survival is only meant for those who are mentally and physically fit. Keep in mind that only a few can represent country. Else, there are enough of opportunities. They can play domestic leagues cricket like Ranji or IPL or other leagues across the country. So don’t look directly for opportunities. Take each day’s performance. Plan everyday and fix goals. Sharpen your skills and wait with patience. Then only one can turn himself into a cricketer.

Your perception about the role as a coach?

I always had a fascination towards coaching. I observed the style of coaching followed by many when they train me and assisted them. Given the experience as a player, I could mix practical sides without completely going into the theoretical side and develop a style of my own, I believe. That could be the reason why I could sustain in the field of coaching even after three decades. I always tried to update. It is a vital fact. I did my course in 1986. There is no point now in preaching what I learned so long back. I could adapt with the changing trends and it helped me to adjust with rather unfamiliar version like T20. I never felt any struggle. When I was in charge of state team, we made it into the final round of Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament. All trainers should follow the element of updating themselves and maintain fitness. If so, anybody can sustain in this field. Also, notably, in my coaching career, I worked for BPCL Kochi Refinery Cricket Academy for 26 years. I could achieve good results there. For me, this spell holds equal importance with my stint with the state teams of various age groups.

P Balachandran

Staying in cricket for 50 years

Proud to say that I could associate with all the generations—from the first generation of Balan Pandit and Ravi Achan to Salman Nizar. It is a luck. I’m fortunate to stay with active cricket for this long years. Too many factors made it possible. Looking back, the one innings that brought me to limelight is an innings of 72-run knock against Bharath Electronics from Karnataka in Pooja cricket. The team consisted of Ranji players from Karnataka had the reputation of lifting the title. I remember making 84 runs versus Hyderabad at Thalassery against a line up consisting Indian players Shivpal Yadav and Arshad Ayub. I score another half century against Karnataka defying the attack of the likes of Roger Binny and Raghuram Bhatt. An irony is that I had started my career as a wicket keeper. However, I later mastered the art of spin bowling and was a handy off spinner in club cricket for many years. After started in 1968 at Ernakulam district league, I played active cricket till two years back. As per the request of my colleagues and friends, I played a match in the 50th year of my career at Tripunithura. It was a nice feeling donning the whites again. I consider myself lucky to make it.

Evolution as a cricket writer?

I believe, cricket is a game of philosophy When unethical instances occur, Englishmen used to say that it is not cricket. It is a game of virtue. Over the years, there may be some deviations. Money has become a vital part, some claim. Basically it is still a gentlemen’s game. Since I understood the philosophical side of the game, I was always keen to write and speak about it. I have written a book on cricket in Malayalam narrating playing techniques and its history. I have also penned articles for magazines and newspapers. For the last 15 years, I am handling a column in Mathrubhumi Sports Masika.

Which format is a test of real mettle -- IPL or test matches?

IPL cannot be ignored. Though the tournament has business interests, it is beneficial for players. Even those playing first class cricket can earn good money. A positive outcome is the improvement in quality of fielding the T20 has brought with. It has made cricketers more athletic. The drawback is shrinking mindset as at least a handful of players set IPL as their goal. However, I am of the opinion that the real stuff of a player is tested in longer duration matches -- multi-day matches including tests. A player gets enough opportunity to prove his mettle in longer format and it should be the criteria to asses his/her mettle.

P Balachandran

Are you an avid reader?

I love books; especially autobiographies. The life stories of successful persons are highly inspirational and we can learn a lot. My recent picks include E Sreedharan’s Karmayogi and MKK Nair’s Arodum Paribhavamillathe. These have certain elements that can encourage not only sportspersons but any individual. These books are clear education.

What is your take on life?

Take human life as a bonus. It’s a rare gift. Whatever be the difficulties, if we fail to enjoy the life, we will have to regret at later stage of life. We have to be spontaneous, should possess sense of humour and the mindset to take criticism. In total, a mature approach is what we need. We have to enjoy each and every moment of life. That’s the philosophy I have learned out of my experience. Be it music, cricket, spirituality or whatever, try to find pleasure always. Enjoy life at its fullest.