India news March 1, 2013

Practice helped me master spin - Laxman

VVS Laxman, in his 16-year Test career, established himself as one of the best players of spin bowling in the world but, by his own admission, it wasn't a talent he had acquired when he first picked up the bat. Failures early in his career taught him to respect spin bowling more and after hours of practice his batting had evolved to the point where he could master any attack.

Laxman was speaking at the launch of Talking Cricket, a compilation of the best Q&A long-form interviews published by ESPNcricinfo and Walt Disney. The book features 22 interviews with current and former players speaking on specific topics such as captaincy, swing bowling, commentary, batting etc. Those interviewed include Sachin Tendulkar, Ian Chappell, Mahela Jayawardene, Barry Richards, and Laxman himself.

"I never got to play quality spin bowling when I was growing up," Laxman said in a discussion with Harsha Bhogle and ESPNcricinfo editor Sambit Bal, responding to an extract from an earlier interview. "As a kid I always enjoyed playing fast bowling. I neglected playing spinners. At the end of the practice session I got extra throw-downs, asking the coaches to throw from ten yards so I could play quicker bowling. I used to practice on cement wickets using a plastic ball or a wet tennis ball.

"When I started playing the Ranji Trophy, there were some quality spinners in domestic cricket and I remember I would invariably get out to Sairaj Bahutule (former Mumbai legspinner), playing against the spin and getting caught at midwicket. That's when I came back to the nets and luckily Hyderabad had some quality spinners like Arshad Ayub, Venkatapathy Raju, Kanwaljit Singh. I practiced hard at the nets against them and I always felt that the hard work you put in the nets will reap results. Within a span of six months to one year I became an excellent player of spin. In domestic cricket we used to get tough wickets, like the one in Chennai for the Test (against Australia), and my confidence grew."

Laxman's admissions could be a lesson for the touring Australian team, whose batsmen struggled against spin in Chennai. "You react to the ball that is coming at you," he said. "If you focus on the guy holding the ball, your thought process changes. You should remove things like the state of the pitch from your thought process and only react to the ball. If you think too much about the wicket, you're only expecting a certain kind of delivery and in the bargain you lose out on the shot you could have played."

Laxman also spoke at length about how it's a bigger challenge for youngsters today to strike the balance between their game and their personality, compared to the scenario at the time he was growing up. He felt it is a challenge for the modern cricketer to manage distractions better, given that players nowadays have plenty on their plate to deal with.

"There is so much of fame, adulation, scrutiny, and money [these days]. It is very important for any young cricketer to be as balanced as possible. It is very difficult to do so and I feel for them."
VVS Laxman

"It's not just about distractions. It's the amount of options available to you. For example, when I chose not to become a doctor and chose cricket as my career path, there was nothing in my life except cricket. When my friends went to movies etc, I used to go home, so I could be fresh in the morning for practice. Now, there are so many options. If you are not successful as a cricketer you could be successful in any other field. That is why now it is very important how you communicate with the youngsters. You cannot be negative with them. You have to be positive so that their interest in the game always remains.

"There is so much of fame, adulation, scrutiny, and money [these days]. It is very important for any young cricketer to be as balanced as possible. It is very difficult to do so and I feel for them."

While he agreed that mentorship is important to a player's growth, he insisted that a youngster should be educated on what his priorities should be at an early age.

"What was the one thing that kept me going? It was the pride of playing for your country," Laxman said. "That can be ingrained at a young age. [Money] is a danger. For young cricketers, their priorities should be emphasised. They should know that money is a by-product of what you're trying to achieve. Pride and passion should be the first priority. I have noticed in the same coaching camps I used to attend as a kid, the parents now say 'I don't care if my son plays for India or not but I want him to get into one of the IPL franchises.' There has to be a balance. That will happen in the ages of 16-19. The coaches at camps like at the NCA have to address the issue."

Coaching youngsters, he says, also needs to be handled with caution. "After my retirement my son suddenly became interested in the game, I don't know why," Laxman said, which was followed by laughter. "I just tell him to hit the ball. My nephew goes to a coaching camp and one day I was playing with the two of them. It was strange. My son was only hitting the ball without bothering about his head position etc, but my nephew would come to me as ask, 'uncle, how is my elbow position?' They are just aged 6 and 7. What structured coaching sometimes does is it removes the natural instincts of a player. Till a cricketer is mature, one should not load too much information on him. I notice spinners are at their best till they are 15, but they vanish. The coaches try to correct them and the player gets confused."

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo