Monday, September 10, 2012

An artist, a magician!

As a teenager, I was excited by the debut of Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, a name I had heard a lot on the domestic circuit. Forget knocking on the selector's door, the young man had banged it wide open with his stellar performances. Quota selection this certainly wasn't. It was merit as merit could be.

Laxman made a fighting 50 with the tail and contributed majorly to one of the first Indian wins at home led by a fast bowler, Javagal Srinath's I-will-wreak-havoc 6/21 at Motera. It was a memorable debut. Those were heady days, of two touch artists with subtle and sublime wrists in the same starting eleven. Both unassuming and genial Hyderabadis. Now both are gone, leaving Indian and world cricket a poorer place for the connoisseur as well as the paying public.

Laxman was always a gentleman cricketer, you knew he couldn't harm a fly, let alone upsetting equilibrium in the political world that is Indian cricket. You couldnt associate him with any camp, it was just him and his India shirt. He took pride in being part of the golden generation of Indian cricket, one we should conside ourselves lucky to have seen alive, all together,all flourishing, all at their best. Yet, he quietly sat in the background while Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Harbhajan and Kumble got most of the spotlight. He was an artist, but breaching territory and claiming poster boy status wasn't his style.

His calling was the 281 at Kolkata, arguably the best ever test match innings by an Indian. That day in the summer of 2001, I thought he realized what it was to be a world beater; the mouth-watering prospect of replicating his dominance of Indian domestic cricket on the world stage. I remember him dancing down the track to Shane Warne's viciously turning round-the-wicket leg breaks and hitting it through mid wicket repeatedly, completely against the turn. The astonishment on Warne and Gilchrist's face was palpable. It was superhuman. It was almost a zero percentage success shot with men round the bat, yet he was pulling it off with amazing dexterity, elan and above all consistency. The innings earned him enormous respect from the Australians, one that eventually culminated with them coining the now legendary phrase "Very Very Special Laxman".

That defining innings should have made VVS a certainty in the test side, at both home and away. But silencing doubters for good was just a gift he wasn't born with. Many a time, he was dropped in favor of the five bowler approach, despite clearly being well among the top five batsman in the country. When there was a sacrifice to be made, it was always Laxman. He was perenially one bad innings away from inviting questions from critics. "Slow runner", "not fit enough", "looks older than his age" were all unreasonably used against him in the middle of the last decade (and a lot more reasonably last year).

This solution i.e. dropping him, was one of Indian cricket's conundrums. They would drop him, he would go back, make five big hundreds in four Ranji games and smash the door wide open once again. He was easily the most dominant domestic batsman of his generation. Not just the runs, even the aura of inevitability around his hundreds was splendid.

Laxman's one-day career did not flourish as much. He was quite unfairly dropped for the 2003 world cup in favor of Dinesh Mongia. Evidently, Mongia's bits and pieces bowling and better fielding turned the scales. India surprised many people in their World Cup 2003 campaign, but Mongia didn't. It was a decision that clearly shattered Laxman. John Wright mentions in his autobiography that it even created a distance between him and Laxman; re-building the bridge of faith took quite some time.

At the start of 2004, he returned to the ODI setup and delivered three brilliant hundreds in four games in the VB series Down Under. He also made a memorable series winning hundred against Pakistan at Karachi,in the first bilateral encounter between the neighbors in 15 years. He played his last ODI in South Africa two years later, after being rushed there on an SOS in the middle of a shocking series for India. He flew half way across the world, only to edge Pollock's first ball to slip and boom, his career in colored clothes for India was over.

Post 2006, it was just test cricket for Laxman. One of his amazing qualities was that he survived six long years playing only one format. Considering India play only 8-10 test matches a year on an average, fighting the downtime and keeping himself match fit and run-hungry underlined his professionalism and love for the game.

Laxman was India's bankable second slipper. I would certainly have loved to be a fly near the slip cordon, for those interactions between him and Dravid would have been education. What else could you expect from two of India's most cerebral cricketers?

He was also India's best bad pitch batsman. Mohali 2010 was sheer genius; winning a test match of his own bat with a bad back and Ishant/Ojha for company. His chiding of Ojha mid-pitch was a priceless moment, one that showcased his passion for the India jersey; a quality that was generally overlooked. Durban 2010, Perth 2008 are many other instances that come to mind of Laxman shepherding the tail and guiding India to impregnable positions.

To add to all this he was a selfless individual; a quality seldom found in great batsmen. You would never associate Laxman with slowing down in the 90s, manufacturing hundreds or going for personal glory. Giving up his icon status after IPL 2008 for Deccan Chargers, however bad he performed there was a noble gesture.

Laxman's last year in test cricket did not go as planned. He, Dravid and Tendulkar owed it to Indian cricket to plan their exit in phases. Certainly one expected more from the trio than playing till being pushed out by the selectors. That Laxman and Dravid went after the same test match means this phase out process was an unmitigated disaster and a lot of the good work was undone.

Fingers crossed, the younger batsmen, who undoubtedly have the potential, will follow Laxman's consistency and performances for India. 16 years at the top level of a sport is a long time indeed. The next time India bat on a shocking pitch or are chasing a tricky 220 in the fourth innings of a series deciding test match, Laxman will be sorely missed.

Lacchu bhai, as he was fondly known, will undoubtedly walk into the pantheon of legends of Indian cricket. Above all, he will always be a remembered as a role model and a good man.