'I'm proud of how I've played under pressure'
It's been 100 Tests now that VVS Laxman has been making batting look all too easy, whirring his wrists and persuading the ball through improbable arcs. Appearances can be deceptive, though, for behind that lackadaisical grace lie weeks and months of graft and practice. And for someone who makes it all look smooth sailing, his career has had more than its share of turbulence. It has been an eventful 12 years and the man himself is satisfied with how it has all shaped up. "I'm quite happy with the journey I have had. It has made me a better person," he tells Cricinfo.
A few years ago we did a cover story for our magazine on the top five Indian batsmen, where each one spoke about one of the others. Sachin Tendulkar spoke about you, and I still remember one sentence. He said, 'When Laxman bats you just stand at the other end and watch and tell yourself not to get carried away.' That's quite something coming from him.
That's a big compliment. But that's really true of each of the four of us, and [Virender] Sehwag and [Gautam] Gambhir too. When any of us is in peak form, when we are dominating batsmen, it is a treat to watch. And one thing you don't want to do is to try to emulate someone who is batting that well.
What Sachin really meant was that you can do some things that can't be emulated.
What he was probably referring to is the shots I play from outside the off stump towards leg. But then each of us has some truly special skills. That's why we have done so well at the international level. But that's a great compliment from Sachin, who has played international cricket for so many years and seen so many batsmen.
Not a lot of batsman make a living out of hitting balls from outside the off stump through midwicket. How did you learn to bat like this?
I have always done what has come naturally. I have not tried to change too many things. I have put in a lot of hard work, but I have followed what came naturally.
There are a couple of things that helped develop my game. One, the school ground. Actually it was not a ground but a small space between the buildings. We had a cement pitch and a tar road and we used play with a glazed ball. This meant the ball really skidded on to you, and it didn't bounce a lot. On those wickets, you knew what the ball was going to do, it didn't deviate much and the bounce was even. So all of us in school learnt to play a lot of on-the-rise shots.
The second thing is that in Hyderabad we had a lot of matting wickets with nice bounce. On those wickets even a decent fast bowler could get the ball to climb from a good length. So as a batsman you couldn't really commit to the front foot - you stay back and play late.
Both these factors helped me play fast bowling well. When you are playing international cricket, 75% of the time you are playing fast bowling, and I really enjoy playing fast bowling.
I recently heard you say in an interview that you didn't play spin very well to start with.
Yes, these were the reasons. I really had to practise very hard to be able to play spin. Luckily we had some really good spinners in Hyderabad - Venkatapathy Raju, Arshad Ayub, Shivlal Yadav, and Kanwaljit Singh - and I got to practise against them in the nets or in league matches. But I had to work really hard because it didn't come naturally to me.
|"I play that shot [to midwicket from outside off] only when I am 100% confident of playing it. That same shot can look beautiful when you pull it off, but if you get out playing it, you end up looking very foolish. I have looked foolish many times"|
Shane Warne would find that very hard to believe.
Actually, I started playing spin much better after I started playing for the country. Before that I would be a bunny to any good spinner in domestic cricket. Often I would be caught-and-bowled to left-arm spinners and legspinners off the leading edge. But once I started playing well, I managed to score a lot of runs playing the same strokes.
Your batting seems to defy most commonly accepted principles of batting. Did no one try to correct you?
When I was growing up there was a huge emphasis on technique. At the Under-15 level we had a coach called Sampat Kumar, and he actually tried to correct me. I was dropping my elbow and he was trying to get me to play straight. He actually hit me with a stump above my elbow. Of course, he was only trying to help me. But as I grew older, coaches also realised that it was my strength, and that I was getting a lot of runs batting that way. And it was also disturbing the rhythm of the bowlers, so they realised it was an asset.
Did you model yourself on anyone? Who were your childhood heroes?
Definitely Sunil Gavaskar. He was the most consistent and prolific batsman then. I also used to love watching Viv Richards. I loved the way he dominated bowlers. Then there was Greg Chappell, [Mohammad] Azharuddin…
You certainly didn't try to copy Gavaskar's technique.
In fact, when I was small people used to call me Little Gavaskar. With age, your game, your technique, changes. But when I was six or seven, I used to play straight and had a compact technique. And I had a ball-hitting sense that the kids of my age didn't have.
I play that shot only when I am 100% confident of playing it. That same shot can look beautiful when you pull it off, but if you get out playing it, you end up looking very foolish. I have looked foolish many times. But with experience you learn to choose when to play that stroke. You assess the pitch, the kind of bowler you are playing. And it's very important that you are in the right rhythm.
The thing about your batting, apart from your wristiness, is timing. Was that a gift?
It always came naturally to me. It's all about meeting the ball at the right time. It's about feeling good; the feel-good factor is very important. And it's also about practice - you have to hit a lot of balls, and you have to get into a really good mental frame.
Part of it was natural, but to play and succeed in international cricket for a long time you have to put in a lot of hard work and practice. I love batting. I used to bat for two, three hours at the nets. In Hyderabad the bowlers used to be really scared when I came to nets, because they would have to bowl as long as I was willing to bat.
You have had a long career, but it's not been the smoothest. I guess you need a very strong mind to cope with all that.
Absolutely. The mind is the most important aspect. Only if your mind is correct can you bowl, bat or catch in a proper manner. With experience, I have learnt a lot - not only from the ups and downs I have had but also from batting in different positions. Batting at No. 6 or opening didn't come naturally to me. Batting with the tail didn't come naturally to me. So the mental aspect was very important. That's something I am very proud of, and I am proud of my innings in pressure situations. I really relish pressure situations, when you have to bail the team out, and you can't do that if you are not mentally strong.
What was tougher? Batting at No. 6 or opening?
With hindsight, batting at No. 6 was tougher. With opening it was more a mind block for me. And I was very young at that time. The second thing was that people branded me a non-regular opener. Here I was, trying to do a job for the country, and if I failed a couple of times people would say, 'But he is a non-regular opener.' That was really tough. And they would drop me, and I would have to go back to the Ranji Trophy and fight my way back, open again, get dropped again. In fact, three innings after I got a 167 against Australia, I was dropped.
But No. 6 was a different challenge. Often you have to bat with tailenders, and often you walk in when the team is in trouble and you have to play according to the situation and adapt your game to that. Sometimes you are batting beautifully but you don't get value for your strokes because the field is deep. And often you get stranded, so that affects your individual performance. Hitting hard or over the top was never my strength. I always liked to use the pace of the ball, so that was another drawback.
But because I had to adapt and adjust to many different positions and score runs too, I am now comfortable batting in any position.
Another aspect of your game is that you have been a good bad-wicket batsman. Innings in Mumbai against Australia in 2004-05, and in Kanpur against South Africa this year come to mind.
That's because I have batted and scored runs on a lot of wickets like this in domestic cricket, where on the third and fourth days you will not have the ball coming on to the bat, and you really need to work hard for your runs. That experience is a great help.
And the other thing about playing on tough wickets is that you know you have to bail the team out. You know that a couple of guys have to stick around. I love that kind of a challenge.
What is it about you and Australia? Why is it that you always score runs against them?
I like the way they play their cricket. I like that aggression and I like playing fast bowling. Playing against them is always a challenge, and when people are trying to get you out, you also get the chance to score runs.
It's something that started early. I played them at Under-19 level, and at that level they had the most fearsome bowling attack. [Brett] Lee, [Jason] Gillespie, [Matthew] Nicholson. I enjoyed playing against them and got some success. It carried on from there.
Take us through the 281. There you were trying to save a match, but watching you bat, it certainly didn't feel that way. You played some incredible strokes, driving Warne inside out off the rough and also on-driving him against the spin.
There was no point trying to think of the result. We just told ourselves that we needed to bat as long as possible, and more importantly, play as normally as possible. There was no point trying to defend for two days. I had to play all my normal strokes without taking any risks. So all the strokes that you are talking about were percentage strokes for me. I just felt confident that I could play them because my mindset was right and the rhythm was good.
Is that what you would call being in the zone? A feeling of invincibility - as though you can get away with anything?
It's more like knowing what you can do. You are actually playing well yourself, and you are very aware of your strengths. It's about feeling positive, making all the right decisions, feeling in control. I had that sense.
|"I love batting. I used to bat for two, three hours at the nets. In Hyderabad the bowlers used to be really scared when I came to nets, because they would have to bowl as long as I was willing to bat"|
That was an incredible series, where you could do no wrong. But then you went into a phase where you just could not convert starts. You scored a series of 20s and 30s, batting beautifully and then getting out.
Yes, it was a period like that. Not that I was batting badly - in fact, I was batting quite well, and the strokes that got me out were my normal, percentage shots. It wasn't as if I was trying to belt balls over midwicket and getting out.
I particularly remember Bloemfontein. The ball was doing quite a lot. Rahul Dravid opened and got out early, but you batted as if you were on a different planet. You scored 32 off 30 balls - even hit a six - and then you were gone.
John Wright told me it was best 30 he had ever seen. But it was that kind of period. Looking back I would say I was perhaps playing too many strokes. It can happen when you are batting well. It is the flip side of feeling very positive. You sense you can hit a lot of fours, and you try to hit balls even when you are not quite there, because you feel you can pull it off.
You didn't score another hundred for more than a year. Something changed on the West Indies tour. You were a far more watchful batsman - you almost grafted for your runs. Your next hundred, the 130 at St John's, was different.
When you are batting at No. 6 in the subcontinent, or in places like the West Indies, where the wickets are slow and the ball doesn't come on to the bat, then you have to play more of a grafting innings. You cannot hit too many boundaries and you can't time the ball into the gaps as well as you can in places like South Africa, Australia, or even England for that matter. So I think that's why my strike-rate fell.
That's what I learnt by batting at No. 6 - that it is important that you carry on by playing your normal game rather than getting frustrated. So that's when I started playing for a longer period of time and I still consistently got big runs. I was the highest run-getter in West Indies - I got nearly 500 runs in five Test matches. But the nature of my game was quite different in that series. Immediately after that we went to England and I got some 75-odd at Lord's, but that came at a quick pace. So it depends what wicket you are batting on.
That was the difference. Before that I was batting at No. 3 and when you are batting at No. 3, once you are in - it's very important to be in - you have more open gaps, the ball comes on to the bat, the ball is hard, and because the wicket is also nice and firm, you probably get more value for your shots than you do batting at No. 6.
Your career has had many great highs but there have been a few lows in a sense - 100 Tests but only 13 hundreds, and the average is 45, where 50 is seen as the benchmark. What would you attribute that to?
A lot of things. I don't want to get into those discussions, but yes, I would have loved to have more hundreds. There have been opportunities for me to get a hundred when a specialist batsman was batting well along with me but I got out. There have also been times when I could have got a hundred but was left stranded. So there will always be ifs and buts. But in retrospect I should have got more hundreds.
Probably the batting positions - when you are batting at No. 6, or even 5, you don't have the opportunity, especially in the subcontinent, to get big hundreds. If your team is doing well, invariably you have to increase the run-rate because you are looking for a declaration. And if the team isn't doing well, you are stranded with the tailenders. So I think No. 5 or No. 6 is a very tough position, especially in the subcontinent, from which to score big hundreds.
When you look back at your career, would you say you are satisfied with what you have achieved?
I am quite satisfied. No one is fully satisfied - not just sportsmen but anyone. They always look back and say, 'I should have done this,' or, 'Why wasn't I able to achieve this?' But I am quite satisfied because, firstly, with my background, I never thought I would become a cricketer - I wanted to become a doctor.
I'm quite happy with my contribution to the team. There can always be improvement but I'm quite happy with the journey I have had. It has made me a better person. I handle situations in life, as a whole, better. And that's something I'm very proud of. I can take confidence from my career.
It's very apparent to anyone who observes you, even from a distance, that there is a balance about you, not only while playing cricket but also in life. Where does it come from - your background?
It comes from my background, because my parents have always been like that. My father is a doctor - so is my mother - and a lot of patients would praise him. There would be times when a patient got upset with the way things had gone but he was very equanimous - and that's something when dealing with life and death. He's taught my brother and me to be like that. We've seen him in action, practising whatever he has been preaching to us.
In a sport like cricket, especially in our country, where there is a lot of emotional turbulence - one day it's high, the next day you're low - I think my upbringing has really helped me.
And I'm very lucky that my wife has been the same. It's a great feeling at home; it's not high and low according to my performance on the field. So that's why I've been able to overcome the setbacks I've had.
My coaches, my uncle, and close friends, they've been the same. If people you are in close touch with remain the same, you don't get carried away. So I think all this had a huge influence on me.
Handling fame and fortune is one of the bigger challenges now for an Indian cricketer. You have managed it fairly well. If you were to give some advice to young cricketers, what would you say?
I think if it doesn't come naturally, the experience will teach you that. And it will teach you much quicker now than when we started our career, because of the things you mentioned - so many highs and lows; so many good things said about you and so many bad things said the next day.
Nowadays it's much tougher because previously you just had to think about how you managed your game, but now it's very important how you manage your entire personality, which is probably more important because that is going to affect your game. I said earlier that if your mind is okay then your batting, bowling and fielding will be okay. So this obviously will affect your mind and it will get into your mental space. Most present-day cricketers are also very intelligent chaps with high energy and high levels of confidence. Because they are intelligent, they will mature with experience.
You've had to deal with disappointment. You made no secret of the fact that you were upset at not being picked for the 2003 World Cup. And suddenly you found that the one-day game was closed to you. How was it dealing with that? Was there anger?
There was definitely frustration and a lot of disappointment, because I was preparing really well.
I got over it. The people around me helped me. To be very honest, it was the biggest shock of my life until then. Even when I was dropped from the one-day squad in 2005, I was still contributing to the team in ODIs. Suddenly the selectors dropped me. I was still performing in whatever opportunities I was getting. I got a hundred in the Challenger Trophy, but still I wasn't picked in the ODI side.
It was definitely disappointing, but with experience I learnt that you don't think about the things you cannot control. Initially it was difficult because I wanted to play in both forms of the game. I was sure I could contribute in one-day cricket, even win matches for the team, but I was not given an opportunity.
There was one series where it affected my Test performance. I was very disappointed when we went to Bangladesh for the two-Test match series there. I got out in the 20s and 30s to mediocre bowling because that was playing on my mind. So then I decided that if I was picked in the one-day side, great, but I would concentrate wherever I was given an opportunity and I'd do justice to my responsibility.
|"It's a great honour for me to represent the country. As a child you have the desire to play for the Indian cricket team, which was a distant dream I thought would never be realised. When you are living the dream, nothing should come in the way of enjoying that process"|
Has it affected your position in the side, in the sense that if you are not playing one-day cricket then you are out of sight, out of mind? Because you aren't in the one-day side, and if someone else is doing well there, people look at those performances and say, 'Why isn't he in the Test side?'
It's bound to happen, especially in India, where one-day cricket is so important. But with the experience of the initial part of my career I learnt that if I am thinking about things which are not in my control then I am wasting my mental energy and I am not enjoying my game. That process helped me focus on what I am supposed to do instead of thinking too much about what people are writing or saying, or what public opinion is being created.
It's a great honour for me to represent the country, because as a child you have the desire to play for the Indian cricket team, which was a distant dream I thought would never be realised. When you are living the dream then nothing should come in the way of enjoying that process.
In hindsight would you say that not playing one-dayers is an advantage because your best game is really suited for Test cricket?
No, I don't agree, because when I used to play one-day and Tests I was always in touch with the game, always playing at the international level. Even though breaks help you in physical reconditioning, if you are playing continuously in both forms of the game you are in better touch than when you are playing in one. When you are playing both forms of the game you enter a match in full rhythm because you are playing high-quality bowling day in and day out. So I think playing both forms of the game is much better than playing just one.
Talking about preparation: how do you prepare for a Test match?
The preparation starts almost three weeks before the series begins. That is the key, whether you do it with the team or as an individual. You know what kind of surfaces you are going to play on, what kind of bowlers you will face, so accordingly you simulate that kind of bowling in practice, either in the nets or using a bowling machine. If you're going to be playing spinners, you play on the rough surface or gravel, where you can't gauge the bounce or spin of the surface. Then you do a lot of throwdowns.
Before a Test match you usually have a long nets session, say around 20-25 minutes, and then you have throwdowns.
But I always believe that whatever preparation you do, you should feel good going into a Test match. Whatever you are doing, it's just to feel good and not create any doubts in your mind that you've left something undone. And once you are batting you shouldn't be thinking, 'I didn't prepare for this situation or this kind of delivery or this kind of attack.' So preparation is the key.
Especially two days before the match. You are practising not only your strokes but also the way you are going to think in the match. If you are in that mental space then automatically you will start off the Test in that mental space. So I think preparation is not only physical, or from a skills point of view; it is also mental.
Any routines before a Test match day?
All of us have that. It's something we try and stick to. I do visualisation, I do pranayama [breath control in yoga] on the eve of the match. And then you obviously think about the bowlers you are going to face, watch their videos. Actually I sometimes try and watch a movie in my routines before the match, just to be a little relaxed and divert my thoughts. Too much thinking can also have a negative impact on your mind. So it depends what kind of mental space you are in.
Dravid says you don't watch too much cricket before going to bat - you're usually sleeping.
Now I'm batting at No. 6 or No. 5. Before, I used to be at No. 3, so I'd watch or chat with friends while the game was going on. Now I rest near a TV set so you can watch what's happening - if the ball is reversing, or what kind of lines a bowler is bowling. It helps you relax. I don't want to be totally charged up before going into bat. So I just try to be as relaxed as possible, either by sleeping or listening to music. I don't read too many books before because that also takes up mental energy.
A hundred Tests now. How many more?
I don't know at the moment. I am enjoying my game and I am still able to contribute to the team. The word 'contribution' is very important to me. I have the responsibility of doing well for the team. As long as I am contributing with good performances, I am not really thinking about anything else.
I have never set targets. I never played for numbers, though they are important. It's better to take each series as it comes. For example, in this series we want to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and we are focusing our energies on achieving that. At the moment we want to be No. 1 in Test cricket and we are confident of achieving that. As long as I am contributing to that goal, I'll be more than happy.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo