The tough get going
Best Test Batting Performance
VVS Laxman 96 v South Africa, second Test, Durban
Once upon a time there was a Green Mamba. With time, as cricket matches became more of a spectacle, hence surer and longer - wimpier is how those who played at the Mamba might describe the change - Kingsmead too lost its Mamba quality. Then one day, a team arrived, No. 1 in the world, but having been bowled out for 136 on a damp pitch in the previous Test. The home team obviously thought the visiting side could be beaten with pace and bounce. Who wouldn't have? The crowds, the former players-turned-experts, and the media, thought the crown didn't fit. And thus was produced what comes closest to the Green Mamba of old: a grassy track hard to tell from the square, suited for appreciable seam movement; hard enough for knuckles to rebound. Clouds emerged from somewhere too. If the emperor still had clothes on, he was going to be disrobed in full public view.
It wasn't quite what it used to be: veterans watching from the presidential suite were happy to refresh minds with horror tales of how dangerous the Kingsmead track once used to be. Be that as it may, batsmen from neither side liked this imitation Mamba. The ball seamed and swung, the bounce was nasty, and no one went past 38 in the first two innings of the match.
Surely India were not going to survive this one? Surely they would now lose their first series under MS Dhoni? Surely they didn't deserve the No. 1 ranking? One man, though, wasn't accounted for. The emperor is used to calling on him whenever the need is dire, whenever the finest of his ministers fail. The 38 scored by this man was not only numerically the best effort till then, but also the most comfortable a batsman had looked against the moving and bouncing ball.
Still, despite a stellar bowling performance, which resulted in a 74-run first-innings lead, India were down at 56 for 4 again. It would be too much to ask of the bowlers to keep South Africa to 150 twice in two days. The game was slipping away again. Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag were all back; South Africa's comeback was starting to look irresistible; and an overcast evening session awaited. Enter VVS Laxman. Calm. Although he'd like to change it, these are the situations Laxman plays cricket for. He'd love to play every knock like it is 56 for 4 in the second innings on a difficult surface. That, he says, brings the best out of him.
Where was his best, then, when India were bowled out for 136 on the first day of the tour, asked the critics. There was a feeling that all his other three rescue acts from earlier in the year had come against average Test attacks on slow and low surfaces. This, they feared, might be beyond him. Still, those watching from the dressing room knew no other man to trust more.
First up was an hour and half on the second evening, against bowlers who smelled blood, with rookie Cheteshwar Pujara for company. It was a crucial hour and half. If India lost Laxman then, they would have lost the series. Next morning would be different, thoughts would be gathered, plans reassessed, the momentum not so irresistible.
Down to that hour and a half then. There was a three-way examination on: Dale Steyn swinging the ball away regularly, Morne Morkel getting it to bounce from a shortish length, bringing it back in and getting it to hold its line, and Lonwabo Tsostobe getting unexpected bounce from his lengths. Laxman survived them all, also playing a gorgeous drive and pull along the way. He ended the day unbeaten on 23. India could breathe.
The next morning India lost Pujara immediately. That didn't interrupt the Laxman masterclass. Any doubts regarding his technique or his eye were to be squashed. During the innings, Laxman managed to do what he couldn't against Australia, batting with unbearable back pain, with Nos 10 and 11, chasing down trickle by trickle an improbable target. Then he couldn't look less than graceful. Here he did. Here he got a leading edge when looking to flick a chest-high ball, here he inside-edged past stumps, here he got outside edges that didn't go to hand.
Perhaps there was no way even Laxman could survive this without looking ungainly. At least the man himself said the conditions were the toughest he had encountered all career. Perhaps that's why the jury picked Durban over Mohali.
In Durban, Laxman left the ball well - 40 off 171 faced. All the others struggled with the whereabouts of the off stump. He even edged well, with soft hands. Most importantly, he scored runs. Anything loose he went for. He even upper-cut. He even paddle-swept. He even charged at Paul Harris, and went inside-out. In tough situations, great batsmen do things they rarely have done before. Dhoni and Zaheer felt inspired at the other end, adding 48 and 70 with him. Great batsmen get others to hang around with them.
Missing the century was agonising for Laxman. One of the bigger statistical aberrations of our time is that Laxman has scored just 16 centuries, level with, for example, Alastair Cook. Sadly the calm that Laxman brings to the dressing room cannot be measured statistically.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo