'I've saved my best for the best'
Not that anything will top Kolkata 2001, but for the Lancashire faithful VVS Laxman's 113 in the final Championship match of the 2009 season was Very Very Special. Needing victory to be certain of avoiding the drop, the Red Rose county had slipped to 45 for 3 after dismissing Warwickshire for 148. By the time their Indian overseas player left the crease the score had moved on to 282 for 6 and the home fans at Old Trafford could breathe more easily.
Yet that was only half the story, as Laxman injured his back while batting towards the end of day one, eventually deciding to call upon the use of a runner on day two after suffering a spasm while running. There was no chance of this particular batsman retiring hurt, however, as he battled his way to 113 before departing the scene - survival all but secured.
Once again VVS proved that cometh the hour, cometh the Laxman. He spoke to Big Hitter during his county summer about his career so far and a few remaining ambitions.
Your early Test career started as an opening batsman - do you have regrets that you could have established yourself much earlier in your favoured middle-order position or were you just pleased to be picked anywhere at that stage?
Actually I started off my [Test] career as a middle-order batsman because I got my first opportunity to bat at No. 6 when Sourav [Ganguly] was injured. So the first four Tests I played were in the middle order at No. 6 or 7. But the middle order was very packed with experienced players in Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Mohammad] Azharuddin and then you had Rahul [Dravid] and Sourav who had done well in the matches they'd played. So I got an opportunity as an opening batsman and took it as a challenge because right from my childhood I'd always been taught that you have to do whatever the team requires. I thought, "The team requires me to open and I've got an opportunity to play for my country," which is a dream for all of us, so I took it up as a challenge.
It was a tough phase for me - the first four years from 1996 to almost 2000. Not because of the cricket but it was just that I used to get runs, then two or three failures, and then people used to brand me as a non-regular opener. It really hurt me because I was trying my best to do well for the country as an opener, even though it didn't come naturally. That was when I decided that I would not open anymore for the team because the ultimate aim is to score consistently, and to do that you have to be a regular member of the side. I decided that the best chance for me to do well for the country was in the middle order, so I took that decision, and luckily for me, once I took that decision, I got a lot of runs in first-class cricket. I got 10 or 11 hundreds on the trot, and I then got my chance in the middle order [for India] and I grasped it.
When you made the decision not to open anymore did you accept you might not get an opportunity for India again, or at least for a long time, if the players in the side all scored consistently?
Absolutely. That was a factor that was definitely there in my mind. But the decision was taken after the South Africa Test match in Bombay when I was dropped. In the previous Test in Sydney against Australia I got 167. After the next Test - I didn't get many - I was left out of the side and that's when I decided. Luckily for me, my coaches and my uncle helped me in making the decision because I was not enjoying what I was doing. You want to be a regular member of the squad. It really is disappointing and discouraging when you are dropped frequently and then again being branded as a non-regular opener. It was a tough call because there was a risk that I wouldn't get an[other] opportunity.
And I remember once I made the decision, Sourav was the captain and we played a Test match against Bangladesh in 2000. We played with five bowlers and Sourav asked me to open, because he wanted me to play in the XI, but I told him that I wasn't keen to open, so I was dropped for that Test match and also two Tests against Zimbabwe. But I stuck to my decision because of what had happened over the first four years [of my international career]. By God's grace everything went well with me getting consecutive hundreds [at first-class level] and then getting an opportunity in the middle order and then establishing myself.
You always did excellently against Australia when they were the leading Test nation by a distance. When you retire do you feel your legacy will be that you were able to perform against the best of the time?
Definitely. Most of my hundreds came against them. What I would most like to be remembered as is a match-winner. Not only against Australia, I played match-winning knocks against other countries like New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan. But I do think my best performances came against Australia, which was a satisfying thing because they were the best side in world cricket and had the best bowling attack.
Getting runs consistently against them - not just in one series but probably four or five series that I'd been involved against them - is definitely a great feeling. But the most important thing for me that has given me a lot of satisfaction is that I was able to play match-winning knocks - especially under pressure situations. Whenever the team was under pressure I came out and played knocks that helped to bail the team out of the situation and win the game for the team.
No matter what you achieve in the remainder of your career you are likely to be chiefly remembered for your 281 against Australia in Calcutta - does a day ever go by when you aren't asked about it?
Yes, people definitely remember that because it was one of the best Test matches that I have been involved in - in fact the whole series, because it was so intense. The Australian team were on a run - they'd mentioned before coming to India that it was the "Final Frontier". The whole series was so intense that in every session the game shifted from one team to the other.
Obviously the situation when I went in to bat in Calcutta was quite a tough one, so bailing the team out of that means people will remember that knock, and it gives a lot of satisfaction to me and the entire team because post the 281, post the Calcutta Test, the team has done really well - not only in India but overseas, and we take a lot of pride in that and we took a lot of confidence from that Test match in the sense that irrespective of the situation we are in in a Test match, we can bounce back. And I think that has happened three or four times since, when we have been in similar situations but fought back. So I think the Calcutta innings and Calcutta match gave a lot of confidence and changed the mindset of the Indian team.
Did that innings of 281 become a millstone for you for a while with people expecting you to produce that kind of performance on a regular basis?
It's natural and that's why you play for your country - people expect you to get big runs and especially someone like me who has got a lot of big hundreds in first-class cricket. Before my 281, in the previous domestic season I had got a triple-hundred and two double-hundreds. So people expect me to play such knocks, and I'm happy that I've done so - if not to the magnitude of 281, in other similar situations. It's not the [amount of] runs but bailing the team out of tough situations. That gives me a lot of encouragement, confidence and satisfaction.
We've mentioned your pride at succeeding against Australia but would you say playing, and doing well, against Pakistan is even more special due to the rivalry between the nations?
The 2004 series was very intense because we were playing Pakistan after a long time. In fact, that was my first Test against Pakistan in years because I last remember playing them [before that] in 1999. Whenever we play Pakistan the pressure is a lot more because the spectators and the public from both countries expect their team to win. Both are very passionate about the game. So there are a lot of expectations, but having said that, it always remains special playing against Australia and our cricket has always gone to the next level whenever we've played against Australia because when you play against a top side like them, you have to be at your best or probably better than your best.
We were able to do that whenever we played, and in fact during that era with Steve Waugh and the so-called Invincibles it was always the Indian team that challenged them [most], so we take a lot of pride in what we have done against them.
On to one-day cricket: do you resent the fact that critics say you are not suited to that format due to a perceived slowness in running between the wickets and when fielding?
Yes, definitely. I was not the quickest fielder in the Indian team, but a safe fielder. Having said that, in whatever opportunities I got - I played 80-odd one-dayers - I was able to contribute and play some match-winning knocks for the team. I was disappointed that I didn't play more one-dayers for the country.
It's been a long time since you've played, but can you see any circumstances where you could make a return to the Indian ODI team?
No, not at all. I'm focusing totally now on Test-match cricket, and I think the Indian team is moving forward where there are a lot of youngsters who have come up and done well in the one-day format, and that's the way to progress.
Do you see that you seem to be the exception that proves the rule at the moment, where several players have given up Test cricket to concentrate on ODI cricket, whereas you've gone the other way?
For me, representing the country is a great moment and I would give up anything to represent my country. Test-match cricket is really special to me because as a kid I always dreamt of playing for India in Test matches. I take a lot of pride in representing the country and always will do.
In terms of Test cricket you were the eighth Indian to reach 100 Test appearances. What did it mean to you to be among those legends?
It was a great feeling because representing India in even one Test match is a dream for any youngster in the country, so doing so 100 times was very satisfying. It also shows that I have performed consistently over a period of time - which was a very pleasing moment for me. I've been involved in an era where we've played a lot of one-dayers as well as Test matches and I'm quite satisfied that I've performed consistently over a period of 10-12 years, and the result is representing [the country] for more than 100 Test matches. It's definitely a great feeling to be in the same bracket as some of the greats who have represented the country in the past.
Sunil Gavaskar was the Indian batting hero when you were growing up - was he someone you admired?
As a kid I always used to look up to Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev because they were the true match-winners for the country while we were growing up. I think we all learned from watching Sunil because he was so perfect in technique, and most importantly he was a run machine for the country. And he got runs consistently against all the countries - including 13 hundreds against West Indies, which was a great feat in itself - so I think all the cricketers of our generation grew up watching Sunil Gavaskar play. It was a great moment for me meeting him in person and interacting with him over so many years while I've been playing for the country. He used to be there to help the lads from the Indian team - especially when we were travelling overseas. We took a lot of advice and guidance from him. So he's been a great help to the entire Indian team and he's been the role model for a lot of kids in our generation.
Do you have any particular goals you still want to achieve in your Test career?
I have personal goals but the most important goal for me is being part of a team that becomes the No. 1 Test-playing nation. We are very close to that at the moment and the dream of the Indian team is to become the best Test-playing nation. If I can be there when we achieve that, I'll be really happy. So that's my [main] goal and I want to perform consistently and play some knocks which will help us to achieve that target.
Do you have a date in mind to retire or is it a case of you'll know when it's time when it comes?
Exactly. I'm still enjoying my cricket at the moment and have hunger to do well for my country, or wherever I'm playing, and the desire is still there, so I've not really thought about retirement at the moment. I'm only 34.
The full interview appears in issue three of Big Hitter, the ultimate Asian cricket magazine, which is available at newsagents in the UK. It can be downloaded here, November 6 onwards