'I am sure I will get a chance'
Even from 50 yards away, you can't miss the relaxed stance and the glorious flourish with which he leans into an off-drive. After crashing a short ball into the side netting, he pauses momentarily to shake his head free of perspiration. Even at 5pm on a November evening, Hyderabad is a warm place, and the net bowlers running in off long run-ups look a little out of puff. VVS Laxman, though, treats every ball with a seriousness that suggests he's squaring up to Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and not some teenagers eager to bowl the ball that they will boast about to their grandchildren years from now.
We're at the St. John's Sports Coaching Foundation in Secunderabad, an academy set up in 1987 that first put Laxman - then a student at the nearby St. John's School - through his paces back in the late 1980s when he was a young teenager with stars in his eyes and a hint of magic in his willow. Back then, the patch of land that was a graveyard in the days of Rule Britannia had just a couple of cement pitches, and Laxman first found himself there during one of his periodic visits to his grandmother's house. His uncle, Baba Krishnamohan, had been the first to spot signs of batting genius, and Laxman smiles as he points across to the green-painted house across the road which is now a block of apartments.
These days, the coaches at St. John's have put in two turf pitches - in immaculate condition - and two quasi-matting surfaces where Laxman proceeds to play over half an hour to prepare for the challenge likely to be posed by Muttiah Muralitharan. Ashok Singh watches his every move, and a 100m away, Noel Carr and Anil Mittal - one of the formative influences on his career - also glance at the pupil who has given them so much to be proud of. Of the triumvirate of coaches that shaped his early career, only Mittal is present. V Manohar has migrated to New Zealand, and John Manoj, acknowledged by Mittal as the chief catalyst, is busy in his role as media liaison officer for the India-South Africa encounter.
Carr is the most vocal when asked about Laxman's omission from the one-day set-up, saying that he has always been a "sacrificial lamb", while Mittal suggests that his relative lack of agility and fitness problems at the start of the season contributed to the selectors' decision. The man himself appears to bear no grudge and would rather focus on what he has to do to avoid the ignominious fate of being the greatest batsman - Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock aside - never to play in a World Cup.
"I have been working a lot on my fitness and fielding," he tells you, with the same quiet and earnest tone that has always set him apart from lesser mortals with poor attitudes. "I got a couple of opportunities in Sri Lanka, but was not able to capitalise on them for many reasons. I was not fully fit then, but I have to be ready to make best use of any chances that come my way in future."
Despite the emergence of Suresh Raina and Venugopal Rao as middle-order options, Laxman refuses to accept that his dream of representing India in the Caribbean in the spring of 2007 is an unreal one. "I was in a similar situation in 2003 after I was dropped for the World Cup," he says, harking back to a slight that hurt more than any other. "A lot of people thought my one-day career was over but 2003-04 was my best season where one-dayers were concerned. I am sure I will get a chance."
Watching a resurgent Indian side trounce Sri Lanka has clearly been a bittersweet experience, joy at his team-mates' success tempered by sadness at not being part of it. "Whenever you watch your colleagues, you think about being in the thick of the action," he says with a rueful smile. "You always want to represent your country. It definitely hurts and it makes me more determined to work really hard and keep improving."
St. John's, with all its memories, is "like a family", and Laxman says that coming back every morning and evening is as much about inspiration as it is about staying in touch. "When I play here, I remember the young Laxman ... the dreams that he had. It makes me recall how much playing for India meant back then. And when I do that, I realise how special it still is."
The drives he plays are still laced with matchless elegance, but the gentle expression belies a grim determination to make the most of what he feels could be his best years as a batsman. At his sublime best, he remains a man capable of dismissing the most potent attacks. Rahul Dravid reckons that batting at the other end at the Eden Gardens in 2001 was a "privilege", and the respect and affection with which Australians view him - Adam Gilchrist stopped just short of calling his World Cup omission absurd - should tell you all you need to know about a truly special cricketer. Sometimes, it takes a champion to recognise another.
As for the immediate future, Murali and friends would do well to be wary. The underprepared strip at the former cemetery may not resemble the pitches at Chepauk or the Kotla, but the eagerness with which Laxman goes through his repertoire of shots suggests that things could get even worse for a Sri Lankan side that were well and truly buried in the one-day series.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo