“When Laxman bats you just stand at the other end and watch and tell yourself not to get carried away.”
Coming from the legendary batting genius Sachin Tendulkar, the statement is worth its weight in gold, and very apt for a man who made Test cricket as interesting as a high-voltage encounter between India and Pakistan.
He had the choice of becoming a doctor like his parents, or choose the difficult journey towards becoming a world-class cricketer for the nation. Giving into his passion, he opted for the latter, and the game became all the more rich owing to his decision and subsequent triumphs.
Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, the bête noire of Australia and one of the greatest batsmen to have played the longest version of the game for India, turns 39 today. And just like he used to do on the field, he would prefer a quiet celebration with his close ones instead of a well-publicised, glitzy affair.
There is something about the way the Hyderabad cricketers bat – it’s like a coaching clinic has been brought to life right before your eyes, in the comfort of your living room. If Mohammad Azharuddin was wristy, Laxman took the art to newer levels. Those sinuous, supple limbs enabled him to make his on-side play a virtual mirror-image of the former Indian captain, who he rates as one of his cricketing idols.
At the crease, Laxman was grace and fluidity personified; a steady stance, coupled with a textbook technique, would have classed him as one among the many wielders of the willow who had sizzled briefly with promise. What made him a treat to watch was the natural flair and elegance behind the way he played his shots on both sides of the wicket. His drives on the leg-side, the short-arm pulls and leg-glances were enough to leave everyone transfixed with admiration for his craft. Laxman also played the cover drive and the straight drive like a seasoned professional early in his international career, leading the colourful Geoffrey Boycott to rate him as one of India’s best against the new ball.
Perhaps it was this ability that prompted the Indian selectors to move him into the opening slot for Test matches – a move that did not work out as well as they had hoped for. It coincided with a relatively lean run of form for the batsman, who was unable to cement a place in the-then star studded middle order. In the limited-overs format, too, the Hyderabadi wizard struggled for both form and consistency. He was dropped from both sides in 1998.
Disappointed but determined, Laxman toiled away in first-class cricket, making the 1999 Ranji Trophy tournament his own with eight centuries in nine matches. It forced the selectors to recall him for the 2000 tour to Australia, which turned out to be a disaster for the entire squad. Glenn McGrath was in one of his destructive moods on that tour, and Laxman was the only one who held firm against him and Shane Warne in the third and final Test, making a glorious 167 as opener.
One would think that the century alone was sufficient for the young batsman to force his way into the top order. But Laxman realized he wasn’t cut out for that role, and preferred to return to the hinterlands of domestic cricket, re-inventing himself as a middle-order player. It took the arduous struggle of a year before he returned to the Test side in late 2000.
VVS Laxman (left) and Rahul Dravid of India leave the field at the end of play after batting the entire day, after day four of the 2nd Test between India and Australia played at Eden Gardens in 2001.
In that period, he revived his career and played a huge part in turning around the fortunes of a side which had been rocked by the match-fixing saga as well as the resignation of Tendulkar as captain. At Eden Gardens, he played the greatest innings ever seen on Indian soil in the new century, pairing with Rahul Dravid for an extraordinary stand that Steve Waugh’s boys could not break for a whole day.
The wily Warne, looking to curtail Laxman’s free scoring, began bowling into the footmarks outside leg stump. However, VVS counter-attacked with his magical on-side play, and played his inside-out drives in the vacant off-side region to completely wipe out Warne’s hopes of a wicket. India won the game and took the series later, denying Waugh the conquest of the final frontier. Laxman earned the epithet Very Very Special after his majestic 281 in that match.
This was the beginning of a golden run for the batsman, and his dominance over the Kangaroos continued to grow in leaps and bounds. He also consolidated his position in the ODI line-up with some brilliant performances, and was regarded as one of India’s Fabulous Four along with Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly.
During the Greg Chappell era, Laxman was dropped from the limited-overs side owing to his slow running between the wickets and a rather one-dimensional approach to batting. He couldn’t score at a rapid rate in ODIs, and his fielding was also under the scanner. His Test form remained unaffected, and he demolished the Australian attack once again on the 2007-08 tour.
His grittiness was unmatched by any save Dravid and Tendulkar; he pulled off a famous win over Ricky Ponting’s men at Mohali despite struggling with an injured back and with only tail-enders for company. It was just one of the many rescue acts he had performed over the years, and he did it again during New Zealand’s tour of India. But defeats against England and his favourite whipping boys the Aussies prompted calls for retirement by former greats. His travails in the Indian Premier League, slowing reflexes and waning form eventually led him to call time on his international career in 2012.
One year later, India still haven’t managed to find a suitable replacement for the man with the silken touch. The long-suffering Australians have conceded that they just couldn’t find a way to get him out. The only blemish he has had on an otherwise glittering career is not playing in the ICC’s quadrennial showpiece – the World Cup – despite having represented the nation in over a hundred Test matches.
He was one of those players who had the innate ability to bat well with the tail, a trait that held him in good stead for many a year. What made it even more exciting was that the bowlers found the courage to provide him the much-needed support that kept him going in those adverse situations. This is what the current Indian line-up has been missing for a long time now.
For his sheer wizardry with the bat, Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman will forever remain India’s very very special gem indeed!