January 9, 2001

Nine in nine: Laxman marches onward

When VVS Laxman reached three figures for South Zone against North Zone in the Duleep Trophy last week, it marked the zenith of a quite astonishing run of form in domestic first class cricket, that has yielded nine centuries in his last nine games. Laxman has scaled a summit of batsmanship where a hundred becomes an involuntary act, like inhaling or blinking. He can seemingly score one in a sandpit if he chooses. That the feat has not received the attention it deserves is partly attributable to the banal tracks prepared at the domestic level. Still, to string together such a sequence of scores requires almost superhuman powers of concentration, which no other batsman has come remotely close to exhibiting.

Let's recapitulate Laxman's golden run. His first salvo was fired at Hyderabad's second Super League engagement in the Ranji Trophy last February when he opened the innings against Bihar at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium. Bihar are an old whipping boy for Laxman; his first triple hundred in first class cricket was taken off them a few seasons ago. This time he collected a mere 119.

Reverting to his regular No.3 position in the following game against Railways at the Kotla, Laxman made 109 & 45. Hyderabad led on the first innings and only narrowly failed to close out an outright win, Laxman taking four wickets with his off spinners for good measure. His only failure came against Baroda at Secunderabad's Gymkhana Ground. Despite scores of 6 & 48 from their premier batsman, Hyderabad eked out a 71-run victory after conceding the first innings lead.

To compensate for that unproductive venture, he slammed a hundred in each innings in the Ranji Trophy quarter finals against Uttar Pradesh in their own backyard in Kanpur. Laxman made 128 in the first innings, no other batsman reaching 30. Having conceded a 71-run lead, Hyderabad were in search of quick runs in their second knock. Laxman duly obliged, slamming an unbeaten 177 in just 241 balls to set up a challenging declaration. Chasing a target of 311 in more than a day, the hosts collapsed to lose by 92 runs.

The semifinals against Karnataka beckoned at Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium. Before he left Hyderabad, Laxman was urged by his father over a casual dinner table conversation to score a triple century. He took the words to heart. Dropped on 30 by Barrington Rowland, he extracted heavy damage for that lapse, producing a scintillating 353 (52 fours and 2 sixes) against an attack including three Test bowlers in Venkatesh Prasad, Sunil Joshi and Dodda Ganesh. Hyderabad soared to 711/8, duly winning on first innings. Laxman was dismissed for 19 when Hyderabad batted again in a purely academic exercise.

In the final in Mumbai a week later, there was disappointment in store for Laxman as Hyderabad responded to the host's 376. Just as he was getting into his stride, Laxman was run out for 46 in a mix-up with Azharuddin. Chasing a daunting fourth innings target of 591 later in the match, Laxman kept Hyderabad interested for a while, carving out 111. His fall triggered off a collapse as the last nine wickets tumbled for 95.

Three domestic matches so far in the 2000-2001 season, one each in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani Trophies, have all harvested centuries from Laxman's punitive blade. Returning to the Wankhede Stadium as Rest of India captain for the Irani encounter, VVS collected 167, the only blemish being a sharp chance to second slip on 73 that was grassed by Nilesh Kulkarni. His knock was more than double any other batsman's accomplishment in the game, as Rest ran out victors by ten wickets.

Laxman's only appearance in the Ranji Trophy this season came against old rivals Karnataka in the opening round of the South Zone league, again at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Javagal Srinath was back after injury to join Prasad, Ganesh and Joshi in a more than respectable attack. Stepping into the captaincy, left vacant by Azharuddin, Laxman's 60 in the first innings was not enough to avoid the follow-on after Karnataka had piled up 545. He steeled himself to make an unbeaten 100 in the second knock to force a comfortable draw.

South Zone's opening Duleep Trophy encounter against North Zone at Vijayawada is just the latest in the long running saga. When North declared at 708 late on the second day, it could not have been without some trepidation over Laxman's commanding presence in the opposition ranks. North skipper Vikram Rathour might well have been plagued by an orgy of self-doubt as Laxman skilfully progressed to 179 after being put down by Virender Shewag at gully early on. Inadequate support from the team's other frontline batsmen condemned South in the end to a sizable first innings deficit.

There you are. Nine in nine. The irony is that he cannot still be assured of selection to the Test eleven. Laxman played two other first class games in the midst of this stunning sequence - both Tests. Against South Africa at Mumbai in February, he made 16 and nought, after which he was dropped. Against Zimbabwe at Delhi in November, he made 18 not out, after which he was dropped again.

As long as India plays six batsmen, Laxman is an automatic choice at No.6. The moment the team composition is tinkered with to infiltrate an extra bowler, Laxman will be aware that his head is first on the block. Unfair, perhaps, but that is where matters are likely to rest for the immediate future. Having learnt to take the rough edges with the smooth in a stop-start career, Laxman is better equipped than most to manage a disconcerting situation.