India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata February 12, 2010

Wright bats for Laxman at No. 3


In March 2001, India were falling apart at the Eden Gardens. Steve Waugh's ruthlessness had seen Australia string together a record 16 Test wins on the trot as they reached Kolkata. Another victory seemed imminent by the end of the third day after India were made to follow on.

It was a desperate situation - the series was at stake - and Sourav Ganguly and John Wright, India's men in charge, were pushed to the wall. Call it impulse, instinct, hunch or plain desperation, their decision was pure left-field: they asked VVS Laxman to get ready to bat at his most desired position - No.3.

Laxman was yet to unstrap his pads; he was the last man out in the first innings, having survived two hours of rigorous examination, but was the sole Indian batsman to hit a half century. Yet he went out at the fall of the first wicket and the rest is history.

Nine years down the line, India find themselves in a similar difficult position, with more than the series at stake - they could also lose the world No. 1 ranking to South Africa. And, in the absence of Rahul Dravid, the stage is set for Laxman to bat again at No. 3, ahead of Murali Vijay, who batted one-drop at Nagpur and has the attitude but not the experience.

Wright, though, has no doubt in his mind. "If Dravid is not there I'll play Laxman at three without question straightaway," he told Cricinfo. His confidence in Laxman, he said, stems from his ability to put the fast bowlers under pressure. "If it is the Laxman I knew, he is particularly good against the opening bowling attack because he takes the attack to the bowlers."

Recalling the events of 2001, Wright said the strategy of playing Laxman up the order in that Test was based on his batting in the first innings. "But he has the ability to punish the bad balls. You just can't bat to survive, you have to be positive. He is that sort of a player and he loves batting at No. 3," Wright said.

It's not just a matter of instinct - the numbers, too, support a move up the order. Laxman has batted at No.3 in 20 Tests and averages 47.45, which is slightly higher than his career average. What's significantly higher is his rate of converting fifties into hundreds: in his entire career 14 out of 57 fifty-plus innings have been converted into centuries (a rate of 24.56); at No. 3, it goes up to 40% (four out of ten). He averages almost 76 when batting at that position at home, and India have won five out of the six Tests when he has batted there. The last time he played in that position at home was in a winning cause, when his fighting century against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad in 2005 set the tone for the victory. And minimising the risk factor further is this factoid: Eden Gardens happens to be his favourite ground in India - he has scored three centuries here in eight Tests, and averages almost 82.

Of course, the theory comes with caveats. His fitness, for one: Laxman opted out of the Nagpur Test at the last minute, having failed to recover completely from the wrist injury to his left hand. But he's been practising hard; on Friday, he batted at No. 3 in the nets and also received some slip catches from Gary Kirsten to allay fitness concerns.

He also hasn't been in great nick of late; Laxman's last century was the unbeaten 124 in Napier a year ago, where he helped ensure India drew the match. He made half-centuries in each of the three Tests against Sri Lanka at the end of 2009 but each time failed to convert though he had enough time. Seen differently, though, it could be that Laxman will be driven by the hunger to make a big score.

It would still be an unconventional decision but in MS Dhoni India have an unconventional captain with a record of unexpected decisions. Like Ganguly, he relies on his instinct and it would not be a surprise if he promotes Laxman to make the top order more solid.

"Leadership is very instinctive, you've got to with your gut feeling," said Wright, who brought Dhoni into the Indian team. "Sometimes when you have come out of a big loss some captains can tend to become more cautious. But I don't think it will happen (with Dhoni). I just don't think Mahendra is that sort of guy."

Wright concedes, though, that the stakes are very high. "That is what it is about being the No.1: you are always being challenged. You need to be positive and have a lot of self- belief,. India would have been under some challenging situations on their journey to No.1 but South Africa are hungry for it."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rajesh on February 13, 2010, 21:36 GMT

    First test was a selection blunder for India. And there were injuries too. There was no confidence in the batting line-up once we lost a couple of wickets. Given SA pace attack, it is always likely to lose an early wicket or two, and therefore the middle order needs to have the experience. Given what we have at the moment, I'd play the following line-up for the second test: Sehwag, Vijay, Gambhir, Sachin, Laxman, Raina, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Ojha, Sreesanth

  • Chetan on February 13, 2010, 20:56 GMT

    All the jokers who talk about dropping Saha being unfair to him - he should not have been there on cricketing grounds. He was in the 15 for reasons other than cricket & got himself 1 free test match he should be happy with that much. My thought is bringing Saha into the 15 was unfair to a lot of other cricketers. That wrong has just been undone. In case India plays Murli Vijay - the lineup should be Sehwag, Murli, Gambhir, Sachin, Badri, Laxman, Dhoni, Bhajji, Zaheer, Shrisant, Ishant. In case we play Raina - the line up should be Sehwag, Gambhir, Badri, Sachin, Dhoni, Laxman, Raina, Bhajji, Zaheer, ShreeSant, Ishant.

  • Anshuman on February 13, 2010, 20:06 GMT

    That Ind plays 5 bowlers is far more important than where VVS bats! .... We need to pick a team that doesn't reply on winning the toss and batting first. We need 3 pacers to take advantage of bowling on Day 1/2 and 2 spinners to take over from Day 3 onwards. When Ind loses the toss with 2 pacers + 2 spinners attack and bowls first, it is like it is in no man's land. The two seamers can't be rotated and tire out so the spinners have to be bowled early and it becomes easy for the opposition as we saw at Nagpur .... Reading the batting position, Vijay should be persisted with at #3, even though batting Laxman at #3 is not a bad option .... With such experienced batsmen in the line up, playing an extra bowler to pick up 2o wkts quickly shouldn't be an issue. In fact that's how it should be .... Hoping to see Ind play attacking cricket which shows why beating Ind in Ind is tough! Please pass this mesg to the team: Go with 5 bowlers. It's time to play like the #1 team!

  • maddy on February 13, 2010, 19:08 GMT

    We strongly need the experiance of VVS at No.3 to stop the fall of wckts in the absence of The Wall - Dravid. It is a do r die situation for team india so this is not the right time to experiment. Raina should be picked up into the main 11 keeping Harris in mind. Gambhir is the only left hander in the team so Vijay or Badri should make a way for Raina. We need a big innings from Gambhir, VVS and Sachin to level series. Bowling is the main concern for india now. Ishanth and Mishra should be dropped for Sreesanth and Ojha. Im expecting Zaheer ang Sreesanth to strike only than india can win the match. This is just my opinion for kolkata test. maddy..

  • joseph on February 13, 2010, 16:57 GMT

    its not the toss up between mishra and ojha but its the time to drop bhajji and the next one is ishant ,whatz the logic in dropping midhun and tyagi as both doesnt even get a chance to perform and continuasily experimenting with ishant .next match dhoni should show his courage in dropping both ishant and bhajji and play sreesanth and ojha another logicless thinking is taking badrinath in squad as he is already 30 and any way all the best for team India...

  • Chitraj on February 13, 2010, 16:32 GMT

    Laxman truly is a class act. Yes, in the absence of Dravid laxman should be number 3. In fact I would have been tempted to keep him as a permanent 3 and drop Dravid to number 4, if that didnt mean dropping the little master to 5. The thing with Laxman is, when on song hes a bowlers worst nightmare- picking the fast bowlers from outside off and flicking them to leg or shuffling his feet to cover drive a ball pitched on Leg are something the likes of even Tendulakr and Lara cannot do.Its the magic of wrists, the magic of Laxman

    By him batting at number 3, he can really dent a bowlers confidence early on in the game. If he does this with South Africa, they will have no other option to play very defensively and presenting an opportunity for Laxmans patience to take over.

    But in the end, my only concern with India is that they need an allrounder and a proper fast bowler. Think its time to give Pathan a good run again, and start a talent show to find Indias premier fast bowler!

  • hiromi on February 13, 2010, 16:22 GMT

    It's pretty clear that there isn't a problem with the batting (atm) but with the weak bowling brought about by the Indian pitches. Like OZ, there needs to be variety - some places for the fast bowlers and some places for the slow ones. But there is the problem - no grounds are going to make that change to the detriment of their team. And so India will be forever left with a team of spinners expecting wickets from nothing and batsmen who can't handle green tops. It's a shame that this is what the number one team is capable of...

  • anwaar on February 13, 2010, 12:55 GMT

    i think india should take south africa as a champion team,and tried to played o ffencive cricket inspite of deffencive cricket.indian team have the potential to beat any team of the world. obmksk

  • Narayan on February 13, 2010, 12:52 GMT

    Now for the bowling. This is where captaincy comes into play: field placement and bowling chnages are very critical. I don't think that bowling by Indians was all that bad, while fielding was; Ishant seems to be bowling too much outside the off stump, accuracy is more important than speed. Good fielding can make bowlers look good. With Australian fieldind Kumble might have outperformed Warne; I think fielding underperformance might have added 5 runs per wicket to Kumble. I think if Laxman and Dravid were in the team India would have added another 200 runs to their total in two innings; just the law of averages. That would have also eaten up some time, and draw was more than likely. Was SA batting brilliant or Indian bowling below par? It's a chicken and egg problem. It doesn't seem that debutants, including Saha, didn't do all that badly either. Every thing is not hunky dory but sky is not falling either. Have patience and persevere and, don't pay attention to rankings.

  • Narayan on February 13, 2010, 12:35 GMT

    Generally speaking a team should have three openers going 1, 2,3. This is because half the time one of the openers will be out within first 10 overs, and third batsmen will practically be an opener. This also creates an uncertainty in plans opposition tries to cook up. It seems India has three who could do a very good job most of the time: Gambhir, Shewag and Vijay. To bring in element of surprise send Vijay and Gambhir as openers, Shewag at #3 then will be ideal to accelerate the scroring once the openers grid the opening bowlers. I don't think Gambhir will be that easy to dismiss this time. Laxman and Laxman should alternate at 4 and 5. My general philosophy is that there should be some flexibility in batting order: (1,2,3), (4,5),(6,7) should alternate. After that bowlers who should be arranged in the merit of batting ability.

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