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