Batting in its pristine form
VVS Laxman: a master of his craft
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One of the nicest things that can be said about VVS Laxman is that he looks like a batsman from another age. It is almost as if he has mastered his craft on a different plane; his batting has not a trace of corruption, it is oblivious to the demands of modern cricket and its affliction. His batsmanship defies orthodoxy, but he never allows it to depart from its own convention. His batting is as much a celebration of purity as Rahul Dravid's.
The underlying principle of dominant batting in these times is savagery. The Australians have redefined intimidation in cricket, and all the contemporary stroke players - Tendulkar, Ponting, Hayden, Gilchrist and even an artist like Lara - have a certain brutality about them. Laxman is almost too polite to be savage: he kills with grace. His batting is not about explosion, but a radiation of outrageous talent to dispatch the ball to the chosen destination with a magical uncoiling of wrists.
There were 30 gorgeous hits to the fence from Laxman in the course of his 178, and his silken decapitation of Brett Lee this morning was breathtaking. But three strokes captured the essence of his batting. The first one was no more than a dab, but a wristy one, that took a ball from well outside off stump and sent it teasingly to the midwicket boundary. The second was a back-foot punch off Lee that took him from 95 to 99: the mid-off was deep and straight, and there was a hardly a follow-through to the stroke, yet the ball went scorching to the fence. The last was played off the back foot again, but square. Steve Waugh had posted two fielders at point with the distance of two slips between them, yet Laxman found the timing and the placement to manoeuvre the ball in that tiny space. Laxman knows a science of his very own and he creates his own geometry.
Mark Ray, the Australian cricket writer and photographer, made it a point to walk around the Eden Gardens during Laxman's epic 281 in 2001, and having seen him bat from all corners of the ground, declared to a friend that he had never seen a batsman offer such symmetry from every angle. Laxman is one of the most joyous sights to behold on a cricket field, because he is incapable of ugliness.
But darkness he has known. It is almost inconceivable that a batsman possessing such gifts should have taken so long to find his feet in international cricket. His first hundred didn't come until his 17th Test - a scintillating 167 at the SCG in 2000 in a hopelessly lost cause, and did not guarantee him a regular Test berth. The 281 secured him a place in history, yet he lapsed into a period of uncertainty with a string of 30s, beautiful still, but no more. His next century, a grafted one in the West Indies, came 16 innings later. But hearteningly, the gap is closing. The fourth hundred came after 11 innings, and the fifth after only six more. The margin has been reduced to three for the sixth and seventh.
His 353-run partnership with Tendulkar was the third time he has been involved in a triple-century stand against Australia, and they have all come within a span of six Tests. Of his seven hundreds, four have been against Australia, and the smallest of these is a score of 148. Adam Gilchrist calls this nothing else but extraordinary. "He comes out against us and brings out these special innings, one after another. And then he goes away, and we hear that he is sometimes not in the team. We have never been able to figure that out."
Tendulkar was no less effusive in his praise. "When he came and played all those shots in the morning, I decided it was best just to watch and enjoy his batting, rather than trying to do what he was doing."
While repeating that it was always special to get runs against Australia, Laxman, however, termed his 75 at Brisbane as his best innings of the tour so far. How does he explain his phenomenal success against Australia? All you get is a shrug of the shoulder, a shy smile and an answer typical of Laxman: "I don't really know." Having dedicated his 167 four years ago to his uncle, Laxman was asked who this glorious knock was in honour of. "My parents, who have always been a source of inspiration to me. And Steve Waugh, who has also inspired me during my career."
Not everything in the world can be explained. Laxman's art can't be defined beyond a point. It is pristine and untouched by affectations. Cricket is blessed by his presence.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.