Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sultan of Strokeplay

(AFP 2010, via CricInfo)
The first time I watched VVS Laxman bat was in 2001. I had followed his career as closely as one could in the pre-CricInfo days from across the Atlantic. After the Indian team changed the course of world cricket at Kolkata in 2001, expatriates in the US were treated to the first web stream of a cricket match on the last day of the Chennai Test as India were in the midst of pulling off the heist of the century. While the audio was uninterrupted, the video was a series of images 3 seconds apart. Such was the excitement at the computer lab (that us Indian graduate students had taken over) that we did not care that we were watching a game in 3 second intervals.

My most everlasting impression from that day's play featured Laxman but at the lowest point of the match for him - the incredible catch by Mark Waugh that scuttled his innings.

Since that day, I have not missed a single Test match that India has played if it was available on WillowTV. When Laxman is batting, I sit straight, teeth clenched, fists ready to fight and c-o-n-c-e-n-t-r-a-t-e as if I were batting myself. I cannot tell you how many times I have let my focus falter only to see him get out. I still blame myself for him getting run-out in the second innings of the first Test against Sri Lanka a few days ago. Ishant Sharma was batting and I did not think that Laxman would take a cheeky single and I lowered my guard. Stupid me!

There is a lot of batting left in that tall frame of his, even as his body begins to complain, and I shall save my overall impressions of the fellow for when he finally breaks my heart by retiring from cricket.

For now, I'll let better writers describe what it means to us that Laxman is still batting in the middle. Not for nothing is he widely regarded as India's best bad wicket batsman.

a) Siddharth Monga describes Laxman's latest opus - the 4th inning century against Sri Lanka.
They didn't scream madly as they do nowadays after winning a cricket match. They didn't run on to the field. They just walked out one by one, not a hint of surprise on their faces.
Laxman just smiled and thanked everyone, suggesting, as usual, that it was no big deal. That, though, is the effect his batting has on his team-mates. "Nothing calms you like Laxman," wrote Dravid when Laxman brought up a century of Test caps.
b) Sharda Ugra reminisces in more depth and goes back a few years to find a story that frames the essence of the man.
Never mind what he can do to his team's fortunes. This is a man who can make prime ministers run.

Sighted around the back of the pavilion at the 2004 Sydney Test, John Howard, then premier of Australia, suddenly broke into a trot, and his six bodyguards instantly switched to light-jog mode. A few minutes after the PA system had announced that the new man in was the one he referred to as "Laksmin", Howard made his way through a strolling, slightly puzzled crowd and towards his box seat. Affairs of state were going to have to wait.

If anything about Indian cricket could make Howard crack a smile today, it would have to be the news that VVS Laxman had steered the Indians through a nervy run-chase and levelled the Test series against Sri Lanka
c) Suresh Menon states the obvious - that Laxman has nothing left to prove, but a lot more eloquently than that.
Batting at number five calls for a readiness to play the dual role of dour defender and arrant attacker. Should the team begin well, then the number five has to accelerate; if not, he has to hold the innings together, often in the company of tailenders. For so long and so well has VVS Laxman played that role that we have paid him the ultimate compliment spectators can pay a performer — noticing him only when he fails.

Of the many things he has not been given credit for is filling the bowlers with the confidence to bat around him. Yesterday, while even Sachin Tendulkar played and missed, Laxman looked like he was batting on another planet altogether. One where the ball never spins, the bounce is always true and pacemen bowl short only to give him an opportunity to swivel and hook.

There is a complete lack of anxiety about Laxman’s batting that steadies his partners. Tendulkar settled down after the initial trouble against the leg-and-middle line. Suresh Raina did just enough to convince himself that the treachery of the pitch was no illusion brought about by Laxman’s nonchalance before he too began to bat sensibly. Through it all, Laxman was hardly beaten, and played with so much time it was unreal. No one, spinner or fast man could hurry him
d) Finally, Laxman himself talks about a gratifying and personally satisfying inning.
VVS Laxman has spent almost all his career as the most disposable member of the team. He has one bad Test, and the knives come out. Fans and critics alike find Laxman's the easiest place to question. Thankfully, his team-mates and the selectors know his worth. Easily India's best batsman on bad or testing pitches, he rescued India once again, following his fifty in the first innings with a match-winning, series-leveling, flawless century on a tense final day.

"I have had it [people questioning my place in the side] since the start of the career," Laxman said, laughing. "I have started dealing with them much better. But what matters really is how the team feels about you. And there is no doubt that the team members feel how important my contribution to the team is. I really don't think [about] what the people are thinking outside the dressing room
P.S. Trolling on the web, I just came across this wonderful piece on The Confessions of a Forced Spectator's blog. And an older one about the Indian team's less-heralded star player.


Devashish said...

great links. i am sure i will stop following cricket once VVS retires!

very few players around the world intrigue me any more - Chanderpaul maybe but he is of the same generation. and Strauss. and Amla.

there is a pattern there, methinks!

Devashish said...

btw, one thing I was hardly surprised by but yet found totally heartwarming during Laxman's 103* - Dravid sat there by Kirsten and co watching the entire knock despite his own failure with the bat, and at the end was amongst the first to come rushing out to hug him.

Their camaraderie is so old-world in a modern age characterized by strong individualism.