VVS Laxman – The batting artist from Hyderabad
Brett Lee once said, when asked about the powerful Indian batting line-up “If you get Dravid (out), great. If you get Sachin, brilliant. If you get Laxman, it’s a miracle.” This is how Laxman can torment a bowling attack in Test cricket and it is no wonder that these words came from an Australian’s mouth. This is an ultimate tribute to a man who will be remembered the most for being the impediment in Australia’s path of being an invincible team in the last decade, and spicing up India-Australia rivalry.
Australians are said to be disrespectful to their opponents but the players, public and the media alike admire Laxman for his humble approach and clean image when he walks out to bat or takes the field. These are qualities which very few cricketers possess these days and therefore Ian Chappell had no hesitation in naming him as ‘Very Very Special Laxman’ during India’s tour to Australia in 2003-04.
Though, his full name is really long. ‘Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman’ was born in Hyderabad on November 1, 1974 in a Niyogi Brahman family and therefore it is not surprising that he has a simplistic personality. Both his parents, Shantaram and Satyabhama are doctors by profession. So Laxman was almost about to follow the age-old Indian tradition of a child pursuing the same career as his parents, having enrolled himself as a medical student. But he took a different path, as he gradually developed the passion for playing cricket. By the time he was able to get a driving license, he turned out to play domestic cricket for Hyderabad. His performances were so consistent that within four years, he was seen making his Test debut for India, against South Africa at Ahmedabad.
He started off extremely well, scoring a gritty 51 in the second innings on a deteriorating Motera track. It eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides as India beat South Africa by 64 runs. Yet, he was unable to show his true batting abilities because he was unhappy to open the batting in Test cricket, which he was asked to do due to a packed middle order. Laxman scored 167 in the New Year’s Test of 2000 in Sydney against a strong Australian side, which was the first time he caught the attention of the cricketing globe and also the first of many tons against Australia to come. But still, he was not able to cement a spot in the Indian team and courageously decided to return to domestic cricket to fine-tune his game and become a tough competitor once he is back in the Indian side.
He did make a comeback in March 2001 in the home series against Australia and that series dramatically turned his fortunes around. He did not have a major contribution in Mumbai but come the Eden Gardens in Kolkata and he had something huge to say with his bat against an attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz. He hit 59 in the first innings but it was in the second where he hit his magnum opus, 281 which is considered by many as the greatest Test innings of all time and by Wisden, the sixth best ever. And why not? That innings proved that Australia can be beaten if there is a fine blend of skill and attitude to exhibit against them.
Laxman was promoted to No.3 in this innings and the world was treated by seeing his rebirth. The elegant flick through midwicket and his cover drives, with immaculate wrist work reminded many of Mohammad Azharuddin, incidentally another Hyderabadi whose career ended a year prior to this match. It felt as he was a painter whose brush strokes were neat and perfect to make a picture colourful to the eye. He has never changed his batting since then, and this is why he can be more joyous to watch than the likes of Dravid, whose batting is defined by technique and Tendulkar who is unpredictable when batting in Tests especially.
Laxman’s on-side and off-side play were impeccable and the Australians, especially the spin king Shane Warne were left clueless as to where to bowl to him. It is because if Warne tried to dry the run scoring by coming round the wicket and bowling at leg-stump, he would amazingly play on-drives, which is one of the toughest shots to play as per the coaching manual. Or if the leg-side was packed and Warne would try to deceive him to play in that area against the spin, Laxman would dance down the wicket and play an inside out drive on the off side to Warne, playing with the turn. Imagine, if Warne was treated this way, what about the rest of the bowlers?
Fortunately, Laxman had an apt ally in Rahul Dravid, who was demoted to bat at No.6. They put on 376 for the fifth wicket, easily a record partnership at that time and a prelude to more biggies from these two. Laxman bats in his usually artistic style, while Dravid bats in the traditional and scientific style and so they perfectly complement each other. Yet, Laxman understandably took the honours away by the time he was dismissed and it turned the game around significantly. India went on win by 171 runs, and that created some more records.
Australia’s magnificent run of 16 consecutive Test wins came to a shocking end and after the end of the series when Laxman again scored two fifties in Chennai, Australia lost their first Test series of the decade by a 2-1 margin and Steve Waugh’s dream of winning in India, his ‘Final Frontier’ remained a dream. India’s win was only the third instance in the history of Test cricket that a team has won after following on in the second innings. While Laxman’s 281 was the highest individual score by any Indian in Test cricket, following Sunil Gavaskar’s 236. But this record was broken by Virender Sehwag, 3 years later in Pakistan.
Laxman also needs to be given massive credit for building the foundation of India being a cricketing superpower with the Kolkata win, saving the faces of Sourav Ganguly as captain and John Wright as coach who would have surely been on the firing line had the result been the opposite, given how unforgiving the BCCI has been over the years. Ganguly and Wright would go on to form one of the finest captain-coach duos in Indian cricket at least, helping India begin to win more Test matches and especially those away from home and also revive the fortunes of the team in ODI cricket, which resulted in India winning the ICC Champions Trophy 2002 in Sri Lanka and making it to the finals of the World Cup 2003 in South Africa.
Following Kolkata 2001, Laxman easily became a household name with even wives not watching cricket, being able to recognize him. A country obsessed with Sachin Tendulkar, had a new hot topic of discussion, about the man from the place of Charminar. His scintillating performances in the Tests won him a place in the ODI team too and scored a century in one of the ODIs against Australia.
Ironically, though Laxman has never been able to make it as a regular in the ODI team due to his poor ground fielding (although he is a dependable slip fielder in Tests, having taken 134 catches) and a tortoise speed of running between the wickets. This can be considered his biggest weakness even in Test matches because teams have contained him by strategizing in the form of lateral thinking, i.e., plugging the gaps with fielders so that Laxman cannot find the fence. Besides, he prefers to rely on fours for most of his runs rather than ones and twos and that is the main reason he has a strike rate of 71.23 in ODIS and an average of 30.76, with just 6 centuries to his name. He is also one of the few players in cricket history to have played over 100 Tests and not played a single World Cup till date. Not playing ODI cricket for India will be one of his biggest regrets once he calls it a day.
But in Test cricket, Laxman’s merry making ways continued. He usually has had to bat at No.6 because of Sourav Ganguly preferring to bat at No.5, or he would also take the No.5 spot in case Ganguly or another batsman has to be accommodated at No.6 as per the situation of the game. As a result, he has only scored 17 Test centuries at an average of 46.17 per innings. If he does not score a hundred often, at least he does get fifties time and again and his runs have always been crucial for India.
In the calendar year of 2002, Laxman had scored 984 runs in 19 innings at an average of 51.78, having narrowly missed out on the 1000-run mark. But his watershed tour was of course the tour of Australia in 2003-04, where Laxman scored 484 runs in 7 innings which included a match-winning and an extremely supporting 148 to Rahul Dravid’s 233 in the first innings at Adelaide which helped India take a rare 1-0 lead in Australia, while his 178 at Sydney was another fine act of support to Sachin Tendulkar’s 241 which led to scoring 705 for 7, their highest ever Test score and India securing a draw to retain the Border Gavaskar Trophy by the margin of 1-1. The beauty of Laxman’s batting is that he revels in performing in the background and yet never bragging about his achievements or asking credit for it from his team or public or the media for that matter.
But the following 18 months were a struggle for him as for the first time, he was looking vulnerable. Even on Australia’s tour to India in 2004, his highest score throughout the Test series was 69 on a turner of a track in the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in the second innings, which gave India a consolation win in what was otherwise a 1-2 defeat, their last failure at home. With Greg Chappell being the coach of India from June 2005, life got tougher for Laxman to retain his place in the team.
He somehow saved himself with a century against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad in 2005 which was another match-winning knock but had an ordinary 2006 apart from the 73 he scored in the second innings at Johannesburg which won India a Test match in South Africa for the first time ever. Yet, the selectors decided to give him a break for the Test series against Bangladesh in May 2007 despite having not picked him in the World Cup squad yet again. But his experience could not be ignored and he was called back to play against England in England in what was to be a marquee clash. There were no big scores from him on that tour and it was a continuation of his poor record against England, and especially in England where the ball swings and if Laxman decides to have a poke at the ball slightly, it spells doom for him. Ironically though, he has played domestic cricket for Lancashire in England and was a hit there but I guess there is a massive difference between an English domestic side’s and England’s bowling attack.
But again it was the Aussies who gave Laxman a chance to revive himself. The 2007-08 tour Down Under saw him play a good shadow of his old self with a ‘customary’ century at Sydney, which unfortunately went in a losing cause due to poor umpiring decisions in the match. A 79 in the second innings was reminiscent of the Johannesburg knock twelve months ago, in the sense that it helped India post a rare away victory, that too at the WACA in Perth.
2008 was more or less somber for Laxman until the Test series against Sri Lanka where he scored two half-centuries in six innings, ending in the top 3 run-getters for India in the Tests as the others including Dravid and Tendulkar struggled to contend with the spin duo of Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. This gave him some form to play Australia when they had to come over to India after four years for a return trip, as India toured Australia a few months prior to it.
It was in the final two Tests of the series that he made an impact with a 200 not out coming on a surprisingly flat pitch at the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi. The home boy, Gautam Gambhir also scored a double century but it was Laxman this time who took away more accolades than the others for remaining unbeaten in the end and uncharacteristically hitting a six over long on, based on the advice of Sehwag from the dressing room, to reach the milestone! India went to win the series 2-0 and regain the Border Gavaskar Trophy at home which was until the current series in Australia.
In the following series against England, he struggled but hit back in style in New Zealand, which was a precursor to a brilliant 2009 for Laxman. It was mesmerizing to watch him toughening it out in the wet, cold and swinging conditions in New Zealand. He ended with 294 runs in 3 Tests, with the highest of 124 not out in the second innings at Napier which alongside Gautam Gambhir’s 137 helped India draw after following on in the first innings. This would have been a humiliating loss for India as this New Zealand team was the weakest of all time to play in their home conditions, let alone away and it would have reduced India’s chances of winning a Test series for the first time there since 1969-70. It also helped him improve his otherwise below mediocre Test record in New Zealand. Although he has scored 818 runs against them in 10 Tests at an average of 58.42, but most of those runs have come in India.
Three half centuries against Sri Lanka in four innings, of the home series at the end of the year was an ideal preparation for an even better 2010 which featured four of the best innings by any batsman of the world during the calendar year. The first one was a 143 not out against South Africa in February 2010 at Kolkata, which not only extended his love affair with the Eden Gardens but also won India the Test and avoid the embarrassment of losing a home series for the first time since 2004. The second one was a 103 not out against Sri Lanka in the second innings of the final Test of the series at Colombo. This was a fabulous innings considering India having to chase above 250 on a typical deteriorating pitch and Laxman struggling due to minor injuries. Nevertheless, it helped India draw level the Test series 1-1 and improving their record in Sri Lanka to a huge extent, having lost their last two series there.
The third one was even better though it was not a century. A 73 not out in the second innings against his bunnies Australia at Mohali in the first Test of the 2010 Border Gavaskar Trophy won India a Test which was out of their bounds with the team reeling at 124/8 at one stage. He needed support from Suresh Raina as a runner due to a back problem which was similar to the one he had in the Colombo Test, and Ishant Sharma as his partner to be at the other end. He overcame all the obstacles to lead India to a thrilling one wicket victory and ensuring either a series which would be won by India or leveled.
And the fourth one was once again in South Africa but this time in Durban in the second Test. Dale Steyn and co. were on fire against India on a fast and bouncy pitch at Kingsmead. But Laxman fought it out against the pacers to score a well-deserved 96. Although he narrowly missed out on what would have been a memorable hundred, that won India another Test and in the end the series was drawn at 1-1.
What can India possibly do without Laxman? Every second or third innings of his either results in India making a stalemate of a lost game or winning a game. He is definitely a more reliable batsman than Dravid, Tendulkar or Sehwag when it comes to playing in pressure situations because what is required is a cool head and the determination to overcome any challenge by thinking that the country is above the self. Unfortunately, the media and as a result the public is star-stricken and, always looking at colossal numbers to consider any cricketer a ‘demi-god’ or a icon depending on how many advertisements does he feature in. What it does not look is how much contribution those numbers have made in India winning matches, and that player is a true icon of the nation.
Fortunately, the Indian government thought about this and decided to reward Laxman appropriately with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award in 2011. The year saw him six fifties, three of them in the West Indies, two of them in England and one at home against the Windies. However, his performance in England was once again a disappointment because he was unable to convert his fifties into hundreds and India were whitewashed 4-0 in the Tests. Rahul Dravid needed a partner, this time though Laxman could not step up. And come Australia and it has been even worse. For the first time, he has struggled in Australia with his feet not moving well and consequently, he has looked a pale shadow of the same man who won India crucial Test matches in 2010.
It is only he and the BCCI who know about his fate in the next 12 months, with India playing at home for the next 24 months. He is 37 and age is not on his side, with injuries occurring to him more often than not in the last 18 months or so. His reflexes seem to be on an all-time low, and this is perhaps Laxman’s biggest roadblock in his Test career, to defy age and play for as long as possible. The biggest disadvantage for him though is Rohit Sharma’s resurgence in 2011, which has made him a hot favourite amongst well-wishers of the Indian team to replace him any moment.
Apart from Test cricket, Laxman can look forward to the Indian Premier League. He has been a part of it in the last four years, having captained the Deccan Chargers for 7 matches in the first season and playing as a player in the next two. He turned out for the now defunct Kochi Tuskers Kerala franchise last year and played some unbelievable aggressive shots in some of the matches. Now that he will be a part of the auction this year, it will be fascinating to see which of the nine teams are interested in purchasing him following the hoopla about his poor form and the fact that his IPL record still remains not so impressive, as he is in the eyes of many a ‘Test player’.
He may be under pressure at the moment, but no one can deny that he will go down as one of the ‘Very Very Special’ batsmen India has ever seen in the longest format of the game with over a 100 Tests and 8000 Test runs to his name.