India's Atlas, Australia's nemesis
Atlas had a bad back. Atlas took a few injections, popped some painkillers, did some exercises. Then Atlas turned up at 76 for 5 in a fourth innings, coolly scored 73 off 79 (despite having turned down about 10 singles), forgot the pain, and carried India all the way through.
This Atlas, though, does the dirty job with a certain style, creating symphonies with ambulance sirens around him. His team-mates have variously spoken of the soothing effect VVS Laxman has on them. That soothing Laxman moment came some five minutes before lunch today.
A small but tense crowd at the PCA Stadium had lost its voice by then. Resigned to defeat, they were just hoping for the lunch break to delay the final rites. Laxman and Ishant Sharma, Atlas and his deputy, on their feet thanks to shots and tablets, had added 29. Australia had by then started denying Laxman boundaries. They looked to plug his favourite area with two men who were almost two deep midwickets. Ben Hilfenhaus bowled back of a length, outside off, and Laxman still pulled it. The back may have been wobbly but the wrists were still there, persuading the ball between the two men.
Hang on, we thought, were we missing something beautiful in the tension of the result? For that moment, when the ball sped through what hardly looked like a gap, it was possible to just admire the beauty of that shot in isolation. Laxman, though, is almost embarrassed when you talk to him about the beauty of his batting. He can't understand what the big deal is, for he hasn't seen it from the outside. He might never know what we feel when we see him bat. However, it is his mental strength that he takes pride in; and his team-mates too.
Laxman has often been the most disposable member of the Indian team. It seems he has been playing for his place in the side throughout his career. Still, he has played so many of these saviour knocks for India that he thrives on these situations now. Possibly he longs for them. At least he wishes he could bat the same way in normal circumstances as he does in a crisis. Cricketers spend entire careers wishing to bat in a crisis as they do in a normal situation, but in Laxman's world, crisis is normal, and normal not so exciting.
Last evening, around when Ricky Ponting was warning his mates of the Laxman threat, Laxman was in the nets, testing his back, conscious that his absence in the first innings might have put India in a position from where they could lose. He had had back spasms during his match-winning century in India's previous Test too. Had India lost this one, his head would have been called for again, given the injury history and his age. In the world of Laxman, you thrive on this.
Normally, just before he comes in to bat, Laxman is hard to find in the dressing room. He is either sleeping under some bench or listening to some music on his headphones. Today he was listening to Nitin Patel, the team physio, desperately trying to get things right. Then Zaheer Khan, the nightwatchman, fell. The crowd sighed in relief when Laxman came out and not MS Dhoni.
Australia were going to put more stress on his back. There would be a fast bowler bowling bouncers, a spinner tossing it up, asking him to stretch and drive.
Soon enough the flighted delivery came. Laxman leaned forward and drove it through the covers for four. The pain was forgotten momentarily. "I had timed that well," he says. You bet you had. Ponting passively chewed gum. To the next ball, Laxman went forward and then rocked back, and took four through extra cover. The mix of injections and adrenalin was working.
Out in the middle Laxman hardly showed emotion. Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal brought along the drinks, and with them more painkillers and exercises from Patel. When Dhoni ran himself out, Laxman just stood by the stumps, helpless, watching another wicket fall. Dhoni charged straight off. If Suresh Raina, Laxman's runner, was dreading blame would be apportioned to him, he was wrong. Laxman just looked away. Later Raina almost ran Laxman out, minutes before lunch, but the two came back for the interval with smiles on their faces. Nothing calms you like Laxman, they say.
A possible criticism of Laxman's batting at times can be that he doesn't take charge with the tail often enough. He lets them bat unless they find a bowler difficult to face. That, though, has been the Laxman style throughout, and the results are not to be argued with. Only once did Ishant ask to be shielded, and Laxman did that, against Mitchell Johnson. When you have a tailender as determined as Ishant, those singles can otherwise be picked. Ishant faced 92 balls to Laxman's 79, but there was no way one wounded man was letting another down.
The umpiring did let them down, though, removing Ishant with 11 runs still to go. Laxman still just stood upright and stared into the openness. Pragyan Ojha, though, was slow to start, not awake to twos and ones that would manoeuvre the strike. Then something rare happened. Laxman got animated, shouting at Ojha, asking him to run, willing him to run. If he didn't have a runner, surely Laxman would have managed those runs - so high was he then. "Obviously, I didn't want to lose after having come so close," he says.
Laxman being Laxman, he apologised to Ojha during the over break. That's perhaps why the team loves him so. That's perhaps why he generates so much confidence, so much calm, so much goodness. In almost an anti-climactic slice of luck, India sped through the last six runs.
Once again, rather fittingly, Laxman was not in the winning frame. Just like at the P Sara, where he had had a runner when the winning runs were scored, he stood at square leg even as Ojha jumped up and down. The team, though, was not going to leave their Atlas alone. While in Colombo they walked out as if they had known Laxman was always going to win them the match, there was more exuberance today, but they were still not going to mob him Twenty20-style. In the world of Laxman, you don't act all surprised after one of his near-impossible match-winning knocks.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo