August 8, 2010

A batsman of imagery and imagination

When Laxman takes the stage in his moment, he can conjure up the illusion that the crisis is not being tackled, it is being ignored

Never mind what he can do to his team's fortunes. This is a man who can make prime ministers run.

Sighted around the back of the pavilion at the 2004 Sydney Test, John Howard, then premier of Australia, suddenly broke into a trot, and his six bodyguards instantly switched to light-jog mode. A few minutes after the PA system had announced that the new man in was the one he referred to as "Laksmin", Howard made his way through a strolling, slightly puzzled crowd and towards his box seat. Affairs of state were going to have to wait.

If anything about Indian cricket could make Howard crack a smile today, it would have to be the news that VVS Laxman had steered the Indians through a nervy run-chase and levelled the Test series against Sri Lanka.

If anything about Indian cricket, its hiccuping batting and revolving-door bowling attack, could spark optimism again, it belonged to their No. 5 troubleshooter's troubleshooter of an innings.

That the 103 not out is his first fourth-innings hundred is merely a daunting thought, not a reflection of the man's ability in crisis.

Laxman is India's stylist in strife. Batting mostly at No. 6 has caused him to often arrive when four wickets are gone with a queasy score on the board, or when he has had to gee up the pace to beef up the innings or lead mop-up operations with the tail. Yet, regardless of requirement and demand, Laxman has always been generous with his gifts. When he bats, he allows the most hardboiled to get in touch with their soft centre. It is why prime ministers begin running.

When asked during an ODI series to pick a tune to mark his arrival at the crease, Laxman chose Robbie Williams' "Let Me Entertain You". At his most fluent, his batting makes the pragmatic burst into song. The P Sara hundred was one example of his varied range. He may be best known for the operatic, epic-like innings but often even a short burst of stanzas is more than adequate.

At a 2001 Test in Bloemfontein, after Laxman scored a thirty, his coach of the time, John Wright, usually not given to overstatement, told him it was the best thirty he had ever seen. As India chased 230 in Adelaide, looking for their first Test win in Australia in two decades, the departure of Tendulkar and Ganguly within 21 runs led to a slight tremor of an implosion. Laxman arrived, creamed three boundaries in his first full over, and put up 51 runs with Rahul Dravid at 4.5 an over. When he was out, India were within single digits of their target. When the ODI series for ages had to be won in Pakistan, he scored 107 in the Lahore decider through a veil of moths.

No matter how dire the situation - and he has been on duty on some very dire days - when Laxman takes the stage in his moment, he can conjure up the illusion that the crisis is not being tackled, it is being ignored. That fretting over it is all quite trivial. Like a genteel sorcerer pulling streams of silk out of a hat, his hands create gaps in the field that captains and bowlers cannot conceptualise, let alone attempt to cover.

At his most fluent, his batting makes the pragmatic burst into song. He may be best known for the operatic, epic-like innings but often even a short burst of stanzas is more than adequate

Laxman can speak of his hardship eloquently, be it the spasms in his back or selectoral brutality, but strides to the crease without strain. At the other end, men may be flailing, drowning; Laxman bats as if he were not merely in another game but another era, when cricketers wore cravats and sledging was some manner of winter sport.

Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, Laxman's friend, colleague and competitor, tells a story about bowling to him in the nets. After Laxman languidly dispatched Kartik to an unexpected corner, he would put up his hand and apologise to the bowler in chaste Hyderabadi Hindi, "Hona bol ke maara". Roughly translated, he was saying he had just needed to try out the shot, its affront was really not personal. His batsmanship may be termed "attacking" but Laxman's cricket contains no offence.

If anything, his strokes have often blinded the significance of his achievement and his numbers due to their sheer light. Except Two Eighty One, of course, which will surely turn up in his genome. In his 30s, Laxman has clocked over the numbers with digital precision. In his last 20 Tests, he has scored 12 fifties and four centuries. In his last 13 Tests, from No. 101 versus England in Chennai to P Sara's No. 113, he has produced three hundreds and eight fifties. During the gloom in Galle, he climbed ahead of Sourav Ganguly on the list of all-time Indian Test batsmen. Today he is slotted in at No. 4, behind Tendulkar, Dravid and Gavaskar. The stature will sit on him like the white shirt sits does on his stork-like, angled frame - with the pure poise of ease.

The youngest among India's retreating golden generation of middle-order batsmen, he could leave cricket without any monumental record. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Graeme Smith, Mohammad Yousuf and Kumara Sangakkara have more hundreds, three of them in far fewer Tests. It does not matter. His will never be a career in numbers, anyway. He has always been a batsman of imagery and imagination. VVS Laxman's records may easily be overtaken, but they cannot be replicated.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo

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