Kolkata Knight Riders' Laxmipathy Balaji says skipper Gautam Gambhir is as good as Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni when it comes to leading the side.
That KKR moved beyond the league stages of the IPL for the first time, in the fourth edition of the tournament, was due to Gambhir's captaincy, Balaji felt. "I think our new skipper Gautam Gambhir played a pivotal role in the turnaround of the fortunes of the team. He always used to set an example for the rest of the team-members. He always led from the front and I have no doubt whatsoever that leadership skill wise, Gautam is on-par with MS Dhoni at the moment," Balaji said.
"The way he backed his players to the hilt and stood behind the team was absolutely brilliant. He handled the pressure very well and inspired us all to perform at our best. His attacking field placements helped us apply more pressure on the opponents," the pacer from Chennai added.
The unassuming cricketer, who shot into limelight during India's twin tours of Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04 by playing a crucial role in the team's success, was also full of praise for the legendary Wasim Akram who is the bowling coach at KKR.
"All of us at KKR consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have someone like 'Wasim bhai' around us. The most endearing quality about him is that he always makes everyone feel like he is just another guy. He makes you feel very comfortable and that is absolutely crucial. He is always approachable," the bowler was quoted as saying by ESPNSTAR.com.
Balaji, who suffered a career-threatening back injury that kept him out of action for almost two years, signalled his comeback by taking a hat-trick for Chennai Super Kings, his previous IPL side, in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2008.
He also performed well in the last edition, finishing with 10 wickets, and bowled some crucial spells throughout the tournament. "I definitely can get better, but what was satisfying about my performance this season was that I bowled with a lot of intensity. I benefited a lot by having experienced professionals like Jacques Kallis and Brett Lee around. They were also very approachable and passed some useful tips to me.
"However what really helped me was that my captain, team-management and the owners backed me even when I did not perform as per expectations," Balaji said on the sidelines of the Champions League Twenty 20 qualifiers.
Asked about the one area he would like to improve in the Champions League, he said, "For all of us in the team, the T20 qualifiers were like a god-send opportunity since we were extremely disappointed at having missed out on a direct berth in this prestigious tournament.
"As far as my preparations are concerned, I am looking at fine-tuning a couple of areas. Although I bowled with good pace and intensity throughout IPL-4, my performance in the slog overs was not at all satisfactory. I tended to concede a lot of runs in those death overs, so yes that's one area of the game that I am looking at improving. Overall, as a unit also we need to perform better in the slog overs."
Balaji also had no problem with the transition from CSK to KKR. "When you are a professional cricketer, these kinds of things are quite normal. At the end of the day, you are always expected to give your 100 percent for whichever team you play. We all were expecting some major reshuffle during the IPL auctions earlier this year.
"All the cricketers were prepared to play for new teams. It is not that one fine day; we were put into some other unit or squad. In today's competitive environment, one is always expected to adjust to different situations. Same applies to cricketers as well," he said.