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December 18, 2005
When you think of a cricketing crisis, you think of men like Allan Border or Stephen Waugh, eyes squinting at the sun and jaw set tight in grim refusal to countenance, leave alone admit, defeat. Closer to home, the subcontinent has produced Sunil Gavaskar and Inzamam-ul-Haq, one a peerless opener, and the other the languid shepherd of a brittle batting order. The chances are, however, that you don't think of VVS Laxman.
Perhaps it's time we did. Starting with that 281 - the defining innings of our age - some of Laxman's greatest contributions have come in times of strife, with the innings a mere nudge away from calamity. Eighteen months on from the innings that ended one of the most remarkable winning streaks in sport, India arrived back at the Eden Gardens to take on a West Indies side that had been hapless victims in the first two Tests. Having conceded a first-innings lead of 139, India had slumped to 87 for 4 when Laxman arrived to lend Sachin Tendulkar a helping hand. They went on to add 214, Laxman finished with an unbeaten 154, and near-certain defeat was transformed into honourable draw.
A year later, there was more potential for embarrassment in front of home crowds as New Zealand piled up 630 at Mohali. Laxman reeled off a composed 104 to almost save the follow-on, and then chiselled out a gritty unconquered 67 to ensure that there would be no innings defeat after India had collapsed to 18 for 3.
The fact that the opposition wasn't Australia, however, meant that those two rescue efforts never quite got the attention they deserved on the crisis-monitoring radars. Laxman needn't have worried though. A couple of months later, he and Rahul Dravid reprised their Eden Gardens heroics at a sunbathed Adelaide Oval, adding 303 runs to alter the course of a game that appeared to be moving irrevocably towards Australia. Laxman's contribution was a picture-perfect 148, an effort that he followed up with a magical 178 at Sydney in Waugh's final Test.
The home series against Australia the following year was a different story, with defensive fields and tight bowling lines reducing Laxman to mere mortal status. Yet there too, he was to have a decisive say in the outcome of a Test match. Promoted to No.3 in the second innings at Mumbai after India had surrendered a 99-run lead, he conjured up a sensational innings of 69, adding 91 with the equally fluent Tendulkar. On an under-prepared pitch where the ball detonated off the surface, it was a colossal effort, and that too from a man supposedly ready for the selector's axe.
On this Motera pitch where batting was no picnic, he was seldom troubled, easing his way to 71 almost as adroitly as he had made 69 in Delhi. A glance at his strike-rate might suggest a dour struggle, but on a sluggish pitch that has already taken dramatic turn, he was more than content to pat back the good deliveries and eschew flamboyance in favour of pragmatism.
Of course, as with any Laxman innings, there were moments of unsurpassed beauty - fine glances, gorgeous drives down the ground, and pulls played with such precision and timing that the fielders didn't even bother to move. From the asphyxiating depths of 97 for 5, his partnerships with Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Irfan Pathan allowed India to end the day with a slim advantage. With the two younger men prepared to wind up every now and then, Laxman was more than content to purr along as the Sri Lankans grew increasingly weary.
Pathan had his moments of luck, with two edges evading first slip, but he also creamed some stunning off-drives to disrupt the bowlers' rhythm. The confidence with which he faced the Murali test said much about what that 93 in Delhi has done for his confidence. Dhoni, finally undone by a viciously spun offbreak, was also at his impetuous best, and an inside-out off-drive off Murali defied description.
There was a positive too for Sri Lanka, in the shape of Lasith Malinga. More human catapult than classical fast bowler, he discomfited every batsman with occasional steepling bounce and genuine pace. With his radar not quite functional, he will always be a luxury on featherbeds, but on any surface that offers even a smidgen of encouragement, he can be quite a proposition.
You don't pick up Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and Darren Lehmann (twice) on your debut unless you possess a certain X-factor, and a subsequent nine-wicket haul at Napier in a match of huge scores was ample proof of his shock value against batsmen unprepared for such a bizarre action. But despite his best efforts this morning, even Malinga had to concede the day's honours to a batsman quite unlike any other - someone who can make a crisis look like a Saturday afternoon stroll in the park.
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