'Quite tough to be a Test specialist'
Harsha Bhogle: On Opening Up today, we have got someone who did a fair bit of opening, and then quickly realised that his path to ultimate achievement lay somewhere else. So might seem a bit of unusual name - Opening up with VVS Laxman. Thirteen years on, are you still enjoying your cricket?
VVS Laxman: Yes, absolutely. Really enjoying playing for India, because that's what I always dreamt of from my younger days. I always wanted to represent the country, and do well for the country. I am really lucky that I have been playing international cricket for 13 years and going strong.
HB: You are now being labelled more and more as a Test-match specialist. We saw you in the Champions League; you played a bit in England, but more and more as a Test match specialist. You are coming to terms with that?
VVS: It's already been two years since I have come to terms with that. The last one-day game I played was in 2006. After that I never got an opportunity to play in one-dayers, and at that time it was quite upsetting. But then you have to accept that, as there was no point in brooding over that issue. I wanted to enjoy my cricket, and because of the disappointment I realised I wasn't enjoying my cricket. So I realised that, at least, I am lucky enough to play Test cricket. I wanted to concentrate hard, whenever the opportunity came. Whenever the Test matches came around, I wanted to do well for the team, and perform consistently for the Indian team in the Tests.
HB: Part of the joy is that when you are happy we are happy as well. Because when you are happy you are batting well, and when you are batting well we are feeling good. So we have a selfish interest in seeing you happy. But tell me is it easy playing only one form at the international level?
VVS: It's quite tough, especially if there is a long gap between two Test series, and there are no domestic matches or first-class matches. Like recently we played a Test series against New Zealand way back in March-April, and then we had Test series against Sri Lanka in November-December. So it's a huge gap, and it becomes a little difficult. But you are playing international cricket and you have to be professional enough to practise or simulate to the best you can, and get ready for the international match whenever it comes. It is quite tough when you are not playing international cricket in all forms.
HB: So when you are not playing international cricket and there is this big gap, the only form of cricket you really can play is domestic cricket. I know you've played in England, but I will come to that as we go along. Domestic cricket in India, how much is the gap, how much do you have to raise your game to play Test match cricket?
VVS: There is a huge gap, and there is no doubt about that. Especially in the last three years, because the players left their domestic state teams and joined Indian Cricket League (ICL); so definitely there was a huge void in the quality of players playing. But this year it has become better as lot of them have joined back and are playing for their respective states. So I think the quality of Ranji Trophy matches this year were much better than the last two or three years. That said, there is definitely a huge gap between international cricket and domestic cricket, for the single reason that you are not getting good quality bowlers. The Indian team itself is struggling to find some quality spinners, apart from the guys who are playing for the team. You will find that there is no bench strength as far as spinners are concerned. So definitely the quality of domestic cricket has come down as far as bowling department is concerned.
HB: Is concentration a problem, because you know when you are playing first-class cricket there is a bad ball coming every couple of overs that you can actually put away. Do you still have to get used to the idea of waiting for the bad ball when you come back?
VVS: Yes, you have to, because now whenever I go into bat, obviously the captains make sure that they have defensive fields and they try to frustrate me and play with my patience. This has been happening for last six to seven years, but you get to terms with that. You get to terms with that. Whenever I am playing for Hyderabad I want to win matches for Hyderabad, so that has always been my motivation when playing first class-cricket or Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad. At times you have to struggle hard to keep up your concentration and to keep up your motivation, and that sometimes can be very challenging.
HB: It's interesting you mentioned defensive fields, because one of the things that has puzzled some of us is that you are playing much longer for fewer runs. Earlier if you made 50, you probably got 50 in 70 or 80 minutes. Now to get the same 50, you are taking two hours, two-and-a-half hours. Is that because of the fields or is that because you are playing differently?
VVS: I think because of the fields, definitely. Even the recent Test series against Sri Lanka, if you see when I go into bat at No. 5, usually the fields are spread and you don't get value for your shots. And usually the shot that would get you a boundary gets you a single. So obviously you have to play longer. That said, you should not get frustrated and throw away your wicket, because ultimately it doesn't matter how many balls you play but you have to score consistently for the team. I have learnt that the hard way, batting for India at No. 5 or 6 over so many years. Sometimes it does become difficult for me. I am not like Yuvraj Singh or MS Dhoni, who can easily clear the field and hit huge sixes. But I am happy that I have worked hard on that and scored consistently batting at that number.
"I think one-day cricket will be under threat"
HB: I remember many years ago, might have been 2000, when Ricky Ponting had come to our studios because he was injured and we were doing [a show during an] Australia against South Africa one-day tournament. That was the phase when you were scoring a lot of runs, straight after that South Africa series where you got left out. You were making a lot of runs in domestic cricket. We looked at the score sheet and you had scored 200 and something, and the first that came from Ponting was - "he must have got those in two-and-a-half hours".
VVS: Yes, because Ponting must have definitely remembered my 167 which I got against them in 2000.
HB: It was about 10 months after that, about a year after that knock.
VVS: Because I was dropped after one Test match after that 167.
HB: [Laughs] But we won't go into that, that's okay.
VVS: He definitely must have remembered that. Usually my scoring rate has always been high, and batting at No. 3 for Hyderabad I usually used to get runs at quicker pace. At that time the bowlers used to try attack me, and try to get my wicket; whereas now, as I said, they look to play more patient and waiting game.
HB: Given that you play after large gaps, and given that India play such a terrible amount of Test cricket, it's ridiculous. If you want to say it then you can say it, but I am happy to say it. Is there a feeling that you have to use every chance that comes your way, and so play safe rather than play exciting?
VVS: There is. You want to use each and every opportunity because they are very less. Like we played the last Test series against New Zealand, and now we play three Tests against Sri Lanka, and the next Test series against Bangladesh and then there is a huge gap before we go to South Africa. So obviously Test matches are very less, and you want to use all the opportunities that come your way. Having said that, you definitely don't have a mindset where you want to play safe cricket, but you want to play to the situation that the team is in, and you have to just fulfil your role.
Like for example, in Ahmedabad we had to save the Test there and so I had to just play defensively. In Kanpur, I had to just rotate the strike because they had a defensive field and we have to keep the scoring rate clicking. So it was very important to rotate the strike, and that's what I did. You have to just adapt to the situation, play according to the situation, and play the role that the team gives you.
HB: You played the off season in England, and you and Rahul Dravid are two players who play a lot of domestic cricket in India, as and when you get the opportunity. You've played for three-and-a-half months in England, how would you compare domestic structures, in terms of quality, in both the countries?
VVS: I think it's much more professional than in India. What I realised in England is that lot of county players are really not thinking about playing for their country. They are just happy playing for their county, getting their annual contracts. So they really strive hard to do well so that the county gives them the contract for the next year. And I think it's very professional, it's near to Test cricket even though the standard of cricket, probably, is one level less than Test cricket. But the environment or the ambience around, the way the county teams prepare, and everything is equivalent to Test cricket. Counties have lot of club members who follow the team, there is a good rivalry between the teams, especially if you are playing against a county like Yorkshire then there are a huge number of fans from both the clubs who come and watch. So I think it is much more professional compared to our domestic structure.
HB: Is it still too easy for someone like you?
VVS: It is not easy. The challenge there is to play so many matches in such a short period of time. That sometimes helps you to become consistent, because you are as good as your last innings. So you always start on with a nought, even though you got a hundred in the previous game. Also, being an overseas cricketer you have got that additional responsibility of doing well because the county or the youngsters, everyone, looks up to you to go and win the games for them. I really enjoyed the three-and-a-half months I played for them. Lancashire is a great county to be associated with, a great bunch of cricketers. We did well as a team, and even individually I did well.
HB: You are among the more old-fashioned people in our cricket. You've played Test cricket, you liked playing Test cricket. Would you have enjoyed playing in an earlier generation, when Test cricket was the ultimate thing? Maybe the middle order wasn't that clogged, and you would have got the number that you wanted?
HB: You almost seem cut out to play in a Gavaskar-Viswanath generation?
VVS: I think Test cricket is still a very important form of cricket for all the cricketers. Even though Test matches are becoming fewer and fewer, for all the cricketers, even the present generation of cricketers, want to play more of Test cricket. Everyone knows that Test cricket is the real test of character of a player, of skill of a player, of the temperament of a player. So everyone wants to do well in Test-match cricket. I always wanted to do well for India in Test matches. As I said, right from my younger days I wanted to play Tests. You want to do well in all forms of the game, but for me Test cricket is very special.
HB: Do you think Test cricket is under threat? We read a lot about Twenty20 is going to take over, how the one-day game is still around. But is Test cricket under threat?
VVS: I don't think so that Test cricket will be under threat. But I think one-day cricket will be under threat, because people want to watch good quality of cricket. Over five days they will watch some quality players playing against each other, so definitely Test cricket will stay. But one-day cricket will be under pressure, especially after the advent of Twenty20. So, I am sure ICC will take necessary steps to make it more interesting.
HB: You see a lot of 20 to 21-year-olds as well. Do they think about Test cricket as the way you do?
HB: Or do they think, "why bother, it's too difficult. I have got to play well over four hours, why bother when I can just play well over 45 minutes"?
VVS: That's what, even the present generation of cricketers want to play Test cricket. Everyone knows that the ultimate reputation is in Test cricket.
HB: Is that the romantic in you speaking, or is that the realistic in you speaking?
VVS: I mean, it's an honest feedback which I am giving. Everyone knows that the real test of a player is Test cricket, and everyone wants to prove themselves. And irrespective of how many runs they get in Twenty20 or one-day cricket, everyone feels that only when they do well in Test cricket will they have a stature in cricket. And I am surprised that even the present-day cricketers feel that way.
"I love the shot over extra cover"
HB: If you were starting out now - the same ability, the same class, the same opportunities - but you are 20 years old today. Would you have played your cricket differently?
VVS: I would probably hit more sixes than I have done in my career … [laughs]. I would have practised differently when I was growing up. The way cricket is being played now, even in Test ricket a lot of attacking shots are being played compared to when I started off my career. Probably I would have trained differently as a youngster. Probably I would have worked a lot on my fitness, especially my speed. For when we were growing up, we would just bat for hours and hours instead of thinking about the fitness part of the game. Definitely I would have trained differently, and practised different strokes than what I have done in my career.
HB: It's interesting you say that, because couple of years ago you told me that the secret of your batting is your bat speed. The bat comes down at the right speed, it gets the right timing and it goes to the boundary. But when you are trying to hit those, for the want of words, agricultural shots that go over the boundary, the bat speed gets affected and you can't do that. So how would that have affected your game therefore?
VVS: Luckily for me, I know my strengths and weaknesses. There are certain lofted shots that I can play with perfection and there are certain shots that I cannot. So I avoid playing the shots which get me out.
HB: Okay, tell me which are the shots that you can?
VVS: [Laughs] I don't want to reveal that. I don't want the bowlers to plan that out, or the captains to plan that out. But I love the shot over extra cover especially off the spinners.
HB: I was about to say that …
VVS: I feel that I am in perfect balance when I am playing that. There is a good bat flow, and I use timing instead of power to get it over the fielder.
HB: Would you have played the scoop over the wicketkeeper's head?
VVS: Probably, I mean …
HB: [Laughs] I can't imagine VVS Laxman is batting and he is playing that [scoop] shot.
VVS: [Laughs] See, the present VVS Laxman would definitely never imagine playing that. But if I would have started my career now, then definitely I would have tried out various strokes.
HB: There are couple of young kids coming up, there is someone like say Cheteshwar Pujara, for example. He is 20 years old, but looks like the kind of person who wants to play long innings. If he came to you and said - what should I do? What would you advise him?
VVS: I would advise him to play long innings. I still feel that you should have the temperament of a Test-match player, and then you can adapt to any form of cricket. The temperament cannot be developed, and I feel that sometimes it is inborn. You cannot practise temperament.
So I think for someone like a Pujara, or any youngster, I would say that you have to practise right from the younger days to [play a] long innings. And that's something that I don't see nowadays in the Ranji Trophy. I don't see too many double-hundreds, too many big hundreds. When we started off, there were lot of double-hundreds, not only from the Test cricketers but also domestic cricketers.
HB: You scored a few ….
VVS: [Laughs] Yes, I scored a few. I scored two triple-hundreds also. I would definitely advise them to play long innings in the four-day format. And once they have the temperament, they can adapt to any form of the game.
HB: You look at Suresh Raina who looks a good player; you look at a Rohit Sharma who too looks a good player - but they don't get the big doubles, they don't play the long innings. Does that frustrate you sometimes? Do you feel like going up to them and saying - listen, play long innings.
VVS: I think they are trying their best. I wouldn't say that they are not trying. It's just matter of time, it comes with experience. I have seen Rohit and Raina, both getting big hundreds for their respective states. I think they are capable, and both of them are very talented batsmen. It doesn't frustrate me because I know that they have got the potential to play the big innings. It's just the matter of getting the confidence, and having the big knocks under their belt. I have always felt that hundred-making is a habit. Once you get into the habit of making hundreds then probably it becomes easier, and without your knowledge you start getting hundreds.
HB: One of the problems we are seeing with the young players, who play lot of Twenty20 cricket, is that they don't like the bouncing ball. You are one of the better players of fast bowling. If a kid came up to you and said he would like to take on the bowling but is struggling with the bouncing ball. How would you advise him to cope?
VVS: I don't think Twenty20 players cannot play the bouncing ball. I have seen lot of youngsters who played really well in IPL 2 in South Africa to the bouncing ball. If you are hitting the short-pitched balls over the fence, over square leg or midwicket, then that means that you can easily play the short-pitched balls. It's just about the confidence and choosing the right length or the right ball to hit. So I don't really agree that the Twenty20 cricketers cannot play the bouncing ball.
HB: You are happy with the state of domestic cricket in India at the moment? Do you think it's the right breeding ground for Test cricket?
VVS: I think so, especially now when that the ICL boys have joined back. In whatever domestic matches I played this year the standards have improved and it's much better than what is was the last two-three years. Even the quality of wickets is much better. The standard of umpiring has really become better. One match I played against Punjab, I thought the umpires did a tremendous job. So I think the BCCI is definitely going in the right direction. They are making sure that all aspects of cricket are taken care, and it has become more professional than it was before.
"Best thing BCCI did is to have an umpire's coach"
HB: Couple of things that have dominated cricket in India recently. One has been umpire calling bowlers for chucking, and the other is quality of umpiring that you mentioned, which is a very positive thing. A lot of us are saddened by the fact that no Indian umpire is considered good enough to be at the international level.
VVS: I think the best thing that BCCI did is to have an umpire's coach. Now the captain's report has been discontinued.
HB: So that means that the captain doesn't have to get the best decisions any more.
VVS: [Laughs] Yes, and also usually what used to happen is that the captain used to give less marks to the umpire if the decision went against his team. So it used to be biased. Whereas now they study the videos of the match, and the umpires look at that and discuss it with the umpire's coach. If the coach is not happy with some decision then he shows it to the umpire. So I think the standard of umpiring has really gone high, and BCCI has the right step in having the umpire's coach.
I was talking with Daljit Singh, who is BCCI's chief curator; he was telling that even now they have forms for the captains to remark or write a note about the quality of wickets on which they are playing the matches.
So I think these two things are really important. You want the wickets standards to be very good and also the umpiring standard, because first-class cricket is the ground where a youngster has to make lot of runs to come into reckoning for international cricket. So suppose you get a poor decision then the player's career might be affected. Having said that, the umpiring standard has really come up.
HB: You are happy with umpires calling the bowlers for chucking?
VVS: Yes, I think that is a positive sign. You don't want a bowler who has taken a lot of wickets in domestic cricket being called for chucking in international cricket. So it's better to get over with it at the initial stages than becoming difficult for a bowler when he is playing international cricket. If that happens to an international bowler then definitely the country will be affected, the team will be affected. So I think it is a good call where the youngsters, or any bowler in the first-class cricket, can actually go back, work on his action and comeback and do better.
HB: Are you excited by any young player recently?
VVS: There are lot of youngsters …
HB: Or even someone who is young in international cricket?
VVS: In India, there are lot of youngsters. As you mentioned, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, and I haven't seen Cheteshwar Pujara so I can't really comment on him. But I think Rohit and Raina are very good. Ambati Rayadu from Hyderabad has got very good potential. It's good that he has come back now, after playing two or three years in the ICL. It's just matter of time, if he plays to his potential then he will make it to the higher grade. Rahul Dravid keeps mentioning about some players from Bangalore who are very talented. So it is good future for India, as far as batting is concerned.
But I am really not happy with the bowlers I am seeing. I think the quality of bowlers, especially the spinners will definitely be a worrying factor for the Indian team.
HB: It's good to see Sreesanth taking wickets again.
VVS: Definitely. Everyone knows how talented he is. It's great that on that placid wicket [in Kanpur against Sri Lanka] he produced the kind of deliveries that got the batsmen out. It was worth watching from the slips. I always enjoyed whenever Sreesanth is in full flow, especially the Johannesburg spell where he took five or six wickets. He is a very talented bowler, and his doing well will be great for Indian cricket.
HB: What's been the most satisfying thing? I know you don't have to look back still; you are still looking ahead in life. But at this 13-year stage, what's been the most satisfying things in life, well, on the cricket field?
VVS: [Coming very close] to becoming the No. 1 Test-playing nation in world cricket. Because when we started off we always wanted to do well abroad. Whenever we used to go overseas we used to get thrashed and come back really disappointed. That is something which we wanted to change, and we are happy that we changed that. Also our record in Test-match cricket has been really good since 2000, and we have come very close to becoming the number one Test-playing nation in world cricket. So if we can achieve that then it will be the most satisfying moment in my career.
HB: Catching at slips, you are still getting in there?
VVS: Yes, but you are hardly getting any nicks in Indian conditions … [laughs]. But I always enjoyed fielding in slips, and I have taken some important catches or the game-breaking catches in that position.
HB: Does it change as you move on? Do you follow the ball differently? Or do you always look at the outside edge? Or do you always follow the ball all the way from the bowler's hands? Or do you do that differently at different times?
VVS: Depends which position you are standing in. I think the basics remain the same - if you are in the first slip then you watch the bowler and the ball being released right from the bowlers hands, whereas in the second or third slip, or in the gully, you watch the outside edge of the bat. So at second slip, I usually watch the outside edge of the bat.
HB: So when you are in the slip you don't mind the outside edges, but when you are batting you don't want the outside edges.
VVS: Oh, obviously …. [laughs].
HB: Do you have any targets going ahead?
VVS: As I said, becoming the No. 1 Test-playing nation, and if the team achieves that then I would be really happy if I have contributed to that achievement of the team.
HB: Eight thousand Test runs, nine thousand Test runs - do you think about numbers like that?
VVS: Not really, because if you achieve that then it is always the by-product of the consistent performances or the match winning performances for your country. I always enjoyed playing match winning knocks, or match saving knocks, depending on the situation the team is in. I always wanted to play knocks which will make a difference to the team. Runs, or the numbers, are all the by-products of what we do for the team.
HB: Do you feel 35?
VVS: When I am playing lot of cricket, no. But when you are not playing too much cricket, then you definitely become rusty at the age of 35. That's why I was very happy that I went and played for Lancashire, because the more and more cricket you play at this age, it keeps you in good stead.
HB: Thank you very much for talking to us, and maybe we will do your retiring interview many years from now.
VVS: Thank you Harsha.