'These situations get the best out of me' - Laxman
Waiting in Taj Chandigarh for VVS Laxman to arrive, I was reminded of Taj Samudra in Colombo, just after India's previous Test, in August this year. That game, too, had a similar ending to the one in Mohali. Laxman, fighting back spasms, stood at square leg (then too he needed a runner), arms aloft, his team-mates congratulating him for a match-winning effort in the fourth innings. If anything, this came from an impossible situation and despite worse pain.
Then, too, Laxman had to stay back at the ground for treatment. Today, he couldn't even last the post-match presentation, and left midway. About an hour later, he arrived at the team hotel with a smile on his face and what looked like an X-ray report in his hand. It was so like Colombo. Then too he was more than happy to give us a few minutes despite the obvious pain he was in. He had spread joy on the field, there was no harm sharing it off it too. Even today, with a flight scheduled in the evening, and that hurting back, he sat down for a chat.
"We'll do it like the last time?" Laxman asks. Which meant he wanted to talk in the foyer.
"We have a nice routine going," I say in reply. "You win a match, and we talk in the hotel lobby."
"The routine is nice," he says. "But the pain is not." And laughs.
During the chat we remind ourselves that those back spasms are not that bad a thing. The first time Laxman suffered those spasms was in March 2001. Over the next week, he played the greatest Test innings of all at one of the greatest places to play Test cricket in. Three improbable wins out of three is not a bad strike rate for those spasms at all.
While there might be a general agreement, statistically proven of course, that back spasms have given Test cricket three unforgettable innings, a thought needs to be spared for the back. And both the physios, Nitin Patel now and Andrew Leipus in 2000-01, are people Laxman doesn't stop thanking.
"I have been doing a lot of mobilisation exercises on my lower back and my upper back," he says of the last three days. "Various techniques Nitin uses to relieve spasms. Also a lot of painkiller injections." Three of them in fact. Followed by tablets before the start of the game today, and then at each break in the play.
Last night was spent thinking about the back. "I was not sure how it would hold up," Laxman says. "Then I went and had a net. Last three days I was doing nothing but sitting and having treatment. So I had a net last evening, to make sure the spasms didn't aggravate. Even if they aggravated, I would have had enough time to recover by the match. It seemed okay in the last night. I was quite apprehensive about how my back would be."
As any team would, Australia too bowled a lot of bouncers and flighted offbreaks wide of off to make sure he has to put his back in discomfort. Pain, though, was to disappear soon. Once he drove Nathan Hauritz through the covers, Laxman could feel it. "Once you are in the thick of things, your concentration shifts from the pain, and towards the task at hand," Laxman says.
"Once your mind goes away from the pain and towards the goal, it helps. Still at times, especially when I was playing the short-pitched delivery, it was quite painful. Because of the awkward movement."
The physical pain was forgotten momentarily, but wickets were falling at the other end. That is why perhaps Laxman is generous in applauding Ishant Sharma, the No. 10 who stuck around with him for 106 minutes. "He had been struggling with the injury," Laxman says. "The last three-four days he has been taking injections on his leg. To come and bowl as well as he did yesterday, and then this innings, was a marvellous effort.
"What impressed me most about him was the temperament. We had little chats in the middle. And when, towards the end, Mitchell Johnson troubled him, he told me he wasn't comfortable facing him. Then only I started to try and face more of Johnson. It was important to have that trust. There was no way I could have done it alone. But I have always had a lot of confidence in Ishant."
After Ishant, too, Laxman had to try and farm the strike so that Pragyan Ojha got as little of Johnson to face as possible. In doing so, on the fifth ball of a Ben Hilfenhaus, Laxman wanted his runner, Suresh Raina, and Ojha to go for a sharp single. Ojha did not make a quick enough start. Laxman was all arms and words then. This was a first: Laxman involved in an un-nice moment.
"I knew the last ball would be a bouncer, and there was no way I could have taken a single off that ball," Laxman said. "So we had to take the single on the fifth ball, so I get a little ... It was wrong on my part, and that's what I apologised to Ojha for at the end of that over. I asked him to be calm, and not lose his composure, and not get tense and panic. Because he also played six-seven balls, and that was crucial in the end."
Okay, this is more the Laxman we know. Which is what confounds me often. The kind of innings Laxman is known for remind me of street-smart cricketers like Javed Miandad and Arjuna Ranatunga. Laxman is an entirely different character. How does he do it so often in those situations? He has a great theory.
"I think sometimes these situations get the best out of me, from the mental point of view," Laxman says. "Mentally I have always relished these situations. Always think right from my younger days, I really want to do well in such situations. If I don't do well, I feel really bad and that I have let the team down. I keep discussing with my coaches that I should be in the same mind frame when the going is easy also.
"Probably something to do with Hyderabad. Because when I was playing at that time, I was their main batsman and I had to get a lot of runs for them. I think the earlier part of my career with Hyderabad taught me a lot to take responsibility. Probably that helped me a lot.
"So mentally not much, but physically this took a toll on my back." Some things, though, get better in the pain.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo