Adding patience to panache
It's very rare that a VVS Laxman dismissal isn't accompanied by a frustrated gasp. The reaction is not so much because India have lost a key wicket, but because Laxman, it appears, has needlessly given it away. Having watched him dominate Shane Warne, it's tough not to be aghast when he recklessly top-edges Dave Mohammed; having seen him pile on mountainous scores, it's difficult to see him dismissed cheaply, especially since batting appears to be second nature.
Laxman's most gorgeous innings, though, have mostly been when the bowling has been most challenging. Beauty in sport often originates when two excellent opponents get at each other. Zinedine Zidane side-stepping a quality defender, outwitting his anticipation, has far more charm than watching him run rings around an amateur. Likewise watching Laxman stand up tall and pull Brett Lee on a fast Sydney pitch was truly exhilarating and it often appeared that he could not get himself to dominate against lesser opponents.
Through the years, he's learnt that one doesn't always go out there, swish his bat like an artist does his brush, and rattle off hundreds. His innings today, imbued with blue-collar gravitas, was one in a long line of innings where he's shown the virtues of patience and graft. As he put it succinctly: "Somebody had to shoulder responsibility and it was good that, when situation demanded, I got the hundred."
Laxman has often tempered his approach, but, strangely, that doesn't seem to affect his pattern of scoring. A major portion of his innings has been laden with boundaries (56% of his Test runs have come in fours and sixes) and, though he faces more number of balls, still manages a fair share of hits to the fence. Despite playing several attritional innings, his boundary percentage in every innings is an admirable 56.57. It places him fifth in the list of batsmen with 4000 Test runs or more. To put things in perspective, Sanath Jayasuriya, Brian Lara and Viv Richards are below him.
In March last year, he produced a painstaking, and vital,183-ball 79 against Pakistan, yet 44 of those were in fours. In December, he carved out a 237-ball 104, but still managed more than half the runs in boundaries. Today, 60 of his 100 runs came in fours, with only 26 singles. Whereas other batsmen might try and change their approach, by pushing more through the gaps and looking to gradually build, Laxman simply staggers the boundaries. The fact that 183 off his 231 balls were dots, must tell you something.
Accompanying him today was an able ally who'd changed his batting style, and one with whom he'd shared some crucial partnerships over the years. Laxman will no doubt remember his debut Test, against South Africa at Ahmedabad, when he and Anil Kumble added 56 priceless runs that were to prove to be the difference between victory and defeat. Five years later, almost to the day, they found themselves at Port Elizabeth, with the team facing the follow-on. "The best [partnership with Kumble] was against South Africa in Port Elizabeth when we were trying to avoid the follow-on. Then we achieved that target. The thing with Anil is that he is a very gutsy player, with both bat and ball. Since the last one-and-a-half years he has been very aggressive with his batting. There is drastic improvement or change in his batting in the last one-and-a-half years. In such situations, Anil becomes a little positive as he wants to take the challenge to the bowlers. It's good to see him get runs and in this fashion."
Unfortunately for Laxman he was dismissed immediately after he reached his hundred, his third at his favourite No.3 position. "Every century is close to you and I was a little disappointed I didn't carry on," he reflected. "It was a very good delivery which got me out. It would have been much more satisfying if I had carried on, because we were building a good partnership. Another 10 or 15 overs and we might have even saved the follow-on. I could have even got a big hundred."
It's been a while since that happened, strange considering his five 140-plus scores in Tests, added to two first-class triple hundreds. When it arrives it will no doubt be worth the wait. The gasps, though, will continue irrespective.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo