Laxman's most un-Laxman innings
I don't know if this is the last time I have seen VVS Laxman bat. He has never surprised me so, that much I can say. I have never seen him so passive at the crease.
Today was about as an un-Laxman-like innings you will get from a body double from Serbia. I have seen Laxman in form worse than this, but infinitely more strong-willed. In Sri Lanka in 2008, when all of India's middle order failed against Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan, Laxman did too, but not passively. He wasn't reading which way Mendis was turning the ball, but at one point he made up his mind that he was going to whip everything to the leg side. He scored 56, 21, 39, 13, 25 and 61 not out. There was a lot to like about that effort.
In Australia he has been hanging back in the crease, uncertain outside off. They have plugged his boundary areas, they haven't given him boundary balls, and Laxman hasn't shown the inclination to do much about it. It has mostly been poke, push, nudge. That's what happened today. Eventually he nicked, pushing tamely outside off. It just felt wrong. That's not what Laxman does. I can't remember a worse innings from Laxman, especially because the state of the match was crying out for a typical Laxman firefighting effort.
I am not sure when in my mind Laxman became the man who would always play the most important innings at the most important times. It was not when he scored 281. It happened sometime later, during one of his forgotten masterpieces. Sometimes he would be saving his career, sometimes a follow-on, sometimes pulling off incredible chases in crippling pain, but he would do it. Nor have I ever found an explanation for how he did what he did when everything suggested he couldn't do it. He did it in every country except for England. The direr the situation, the riper it was for Laxman.
Situations hardly get direr than they have for India during the English and Australian summers. In the English summer, he looked good at least. You could see he was trying to do things. He scored two half-centuries, one of them an attractive boundary feast at Trent Bridge. He got out either pulling or cleaned up by really good deliveries, not hanging out his wash to dry.
Then he came back to India, and scored another cool fourth-innings half-century to help India win a match against West Indies that they had fallen behind in. There was no reason to believe Laxman was done just yet. They spoke about his fitness earlier too, but he would keep scoring runs. I don't remember him dropping a catch over the last three years either. He did in Sydney, but Sachin Tendulkar cleaned up behind him.
And he was, after all, coming to a country and playing an opposition he has always relished. The true bounce, the aggressive bowling, the appreciative crowds; there wouldn't be any grinding here, nor utterly defensive fields. He wouldn't be batting No. 6 either, stranded with the tail. For some reason, though, Laxman hasn't been Laxman on this tour.
Before this Test, many wise voices, logical voices, called for Laxman's axing, so that young blood wasn't held back much longer. The voices said Virat Kohli should be given a longer run, and Rohit Sharma should be introduced in Laxman's place. That even if India continued their six-match losing streak, they should do so with youngsters who won't get such testing situations for the next two years. There was merit and logic to that suggestion, but when has Laxman's batting followed logic? How was what you ask when Laxman batted. Not how he did it, but how could he do it. For he defied all logic.
At 5.03pm today, though, Laxman finished a logical duck. He was not getting scoring opportunities, and he was not going out of his way to create any. There was no respite from Australia's quartet either. What happened was no surprise. Australia have got Laxman doing this all series. He did it again. Maybe the critics, some of them trial-and-error merchants, were finally right.
Maybe this is the last time I have seen Laxman bat in a Test. Maybe my last memory of Laxman will be a limp push outside off, helpless against disciplined bowling. And then a quiet, disbelieving look back. And then the long walk back. Maybe it will not. Who can tell with Laxman and with sport? This innings was Laxman's most passive and its eventual conclusion most logical. That's why it doesn't feel right.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo