January 5, 2000

The aura of the unexpected feat

A century in a losing cause, compiled in the most dazzling manner and when it is most unexpected. The only thing missing from this scenario is the dream finish of paving the way for the side's victory. But in a way, batsmanship in a losing cause have a certain aura about them. Two of the greatest knocks Sunil Gavaskar played - against England at Manchester in 1974 and against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1987 - did not prevent the opponents from winning the match. But that did not in any way lessen the greatness of Gavaskar's peerless innings.

But at least in Gavaskar's case, one was always aware that he was capable of playing such technically proficient innings in heavy atmospheric conditions and wicked, turning wickets that favoured bowlers. VVS Laxman's century in the Sydney Test on Tuesday has the added aura of being made when it was totally unexpected. There was nothing in Laxman's career to suggest that he was capable of even getting a hundred in Test cricket. He had been in and out of the Indian team for some time now. In a little over three years, he had played in just 16 Tests, scoring 626 runs from 28 innings with a highest score of 96. On the Australian tour, it had been a struggle for survival.

Moreover the image of Laxman was always that of a doughty, courageous cricketer, in the mould of Chetan Chauhan or Anshuman Gaekwad. A gutsy player who could stand up to fast bowlers and would not surrender his wicket easily but that was about it. No one ever associated the 25-year-old right hander from Hyderabad with razzle dazzle - until Tuesday. The manner in which he batted in the Indian second innings was simply breathtaking. A knock like this could be expected from Tendulkar or Ganguly. But from Laxman? Well, the odds must have astronomical.

One has to stretch the mind and go half a century down memory lane to come up with something of a similar feat. Dattu Phadkar had been taken to Australia in 1947-48 as a reserve utility player. By the second Test of the series he had forced his way into the team. Two successive half centuries and a few wickets marked him out as a useful all rounder but nothing more. However in the fourth Test at Adelaide he won his credentials as a top order batsman, capable of taking his place alongside the three other greats in the side - Mankad, Amarnath and Hazare. With a dazzling 123, during which he helped Hazare add 188 runs for the sixth wicket in an enthralling counter attack after half the side had been dismissed for 133. The runs were made by bold, daring strokeplay in a losing cause, and against Lindwall, Miller, Johnston and Johnson.

Despite his effort, and the outstanding feat of Hazare who scored a century in each innings, India lost the high scoring Test by an innings and 16 runs. When picked for the tour, Phadkar was a bowler who could bat a bit. By the end of the tour, he was a batsman who could bowl a bit. He continued to be India's No 1 utility man for the next decade. Similarly one can safely assume that Laxman, by this one knock, has cemented his place as India's opening batsman for some time to come.