When Laxman batted, nothing else mattered
In the late 1990s, aged seven, I watched my first India-Pakistan match in Sharjah. I have vivid memories of screaming, "Jeetega bhai jeetega, Hindustan jeetega (India will win)," infused with patriotic fervour. But regardless of which side won, all I wanted to see was a Saeed Anwar hundred. Representing the true power of sport, his peerless timing derived from wrists uncocking just the right amount to caress a drive to the boundary, made me forget all vestiges of national allegiance, rendering jingoistic thoughts petty in the face of an artist at work.
Similarly, when Laxman announced himself with a silky 167 in Sydney on the 1999-2000 tour of Australia, cricket found its muse and a love affair began.
I find it very hard to put into words the one quality that touch players such as Gower, Anwar and Laxman have that can send you into rapture. They lack the consummate perfection of a Tendulkar, the cocktail of arrogance, timing and power of a Lara, the technical excellence of a Dravid; indeed Laxman's technique is anything but classical, marked by little footwork and a tendency to hang back in the crease that fosters an air of vulnerability around his batsmanship. Perhaps, it is this apparent susceptibility that is a necessity, the fragility creates a sense of beauty and delicacy in every flicked pull and supremely-timed back-foot punch that flows from his blade.
Further, for someone whose technique can be construed as a weakness, he has exhibited a remarkable ability to perform when his country needs him the most. A 103 on a fifth-day turner at the P Sara Oval, 73 in Mohali against Australia, the instances are numerous ... This capacity to just simply bat when the pressure is immense is what, in my opinion, truly makes Laxman special.
Watching him at such times is akin to a spiritual experience due to the sheer equanimity that he exudes, rendering the match situation almost obsolete even in the eyes of the viewer. Whether 77 for 4 chasing 250 in the last innings, or 300 for 4, once Laxman is in and the effortless weight transfer through the crease and the supple wrists coax a flicked on-drive to the fence, it all feels the same, the tension associated with India struggling simply dissipates. The precarious situation is forgotten; in fact it is reduced to the status of something quite inconsequential, as you are ensconced in a bubble, where the only thing that registers is his batsmanship. This astounding ability to blissfully bat on normally, regardless of the pressure, rubs off on the viewer; his style simply pushes aside the strife.
An archetypal middle-class Indian background has helped him wear his greatness lightly too. When my uncle met him on tour in the West Indies, he proved remarkably forthcoming. They exchanged emails, which my uncle assumed was simply an act of courtesy until he was surprised on his return home by Laxman inquiring as to a safe journey back, my uncle's thoughts on the tour and the well-being of his family. Undoubtedly, an act of immense humility that provided me with an insight into his dignified character, an aspect that will in all probability be missed as much in the dressing room as his cricketing prowess.
With the changing times, a propensity to hammer the ball into space is evident, with far more emphasis placed on the product rather than the process. Caressing boundaries in a way that the cherry itself would almost want to come back asking for more made Laxman probably the last bastion of a dying breed. This decline of the touch player is extremely disappointing as, though they may not be many things - such as adept at Twenty20, or capable of mammoth hits (Laxman has just five sixes in Test cricket) or innovative strokeplay - only they manage to uplift batting to an art form, allowing the viewer a momentary glimpse of a higher, purer game that got lost somewhere along the way.
Laxman retires, with no significant batting record to his name, but somehow it makes no difference. Any records that he does hold may be overtaken, but the manner in which they were set will never be simulated. For now, all we can do is pray that Youtube never goes bust since the emergence of another player of VVS's ilk looks increasingly unlikely.
Perhaps, I should leave the last words to Tendulkar: after his and Laxman's 353-run partnership in Sydney in 2004, where Tendulkar was the model of extreme self-restraint, he said: "I had just decided to stay there … and watch from the other end."