October 6, 2010

The steel beneath the silk

The splendour of his batting sometimes distracts Laxman's admirers from the mental strength that is such a big part of his game

Artists are usually loved, but in sport, particularly team sport, artistry can sometimes be regarded as an indulgence, and even as mildly frivolous. This conforms to the notion, often false, that pleasure givers are essentially pleasure seekers. Of course, no one has ever accused VVS Laxman of frivolity, but it is true that the beauty of his art often obscures the steel behind it.

Yesterday he stroked 73 from 79 balls, and if one could separate the innings from the circumstances, it was a serenely majestic one, full of craft and silken shots. When Nathan Hauritz overpitched early in the innings, Laxman leaned forward to stroke it through cover, and when he pitched it fractionally short, he glided back to slap it past cover. The short ball, which had accounted for a few of his team-mates, didn't hustle him. One was top-edged over the keeper, but the others he pulled with handsome certainness: there were two men on the fence for the stroke and twice the ball went between them. It was as if Laxman was batting as he pleased.

Yet it was not the ease and poise with which he batted but the circumstances he mastered that will grant this innings its greatness. That he watched Sachin Tendulkar perish trying to manufacture a stroke, endured the shambolic run-out of MS Dhoni, played for a large part of the innings hoping the No. 10 wouldn't let him down, and more than anything else, played with the knowledge that one false stroke would end the game for his team, while still managing to keep his wits and his game, points to a singularly exceptional feat.

To bat at the international level takes considerable skill; to marshal the trickiest of fourth-innings chases in the company of the tail requires nerves of steel. That's a rare and priceless quality. The splendour and the gorgeousness of his batting sometimes distract Laxman's admirers from the mental strength that is such a big part of his game. It isn't a coincidence that he is part of a rare and small group of batsmen whose second-innings average is higher than their first.

Numbers, of course, sell him short. A man of his talent and temperament should have more than 16 hundreds from 114 Tests. Alastair Cook has 13 from 60. Batting for a large part of his career at No. 6 - his preferred position, No. 3, has been inhabited by his friend and partner in many heroics, Rahul Dravid - hasn't helped. Laxman has learnt and adapted to batting with the tail, but his natural game is suited to batting at the top, when the bowlers have to set fields to get him out rather than offer him a single to get his partner on strike.

But it will stand the scrutiny of time that not only have many of his runs come in tough situations but against the toughest opponents. No team has beaten Australia in more Tests than India since Laxman started playing, and to these nine wins, from Kolkata to Mumbai, Chennai to Mohali, Adelaide to Perth, Laxman has contributed over 1000 runs at 71.80.

It isn't a coincidence that Laxman is part of a rare and small group of batsmen whose second-innings average is higher than their first

And only a Test ago he guided India to a series-levelling win in Colombo, with an assured hundred in the final innings of the match, a feat so rare that it has been achieved only 63 times in the history of the game, which spans 1972 Tests and features 3396 hundreds in all. It is rare for a reason: a chase in the final innings not only requires the batsman summon all his skills for the pitch on the final is at its most demanding but also the mental faculty to isolate his batting from the situation while being always aware that his is the wicket that could turn the game.

I interviewed Laxman in his hotel room on the eve of his 100th Test, in Nagpur in 2008. He had friends waiting for him, but he was generous with his time. He was open and sincere and looked almost embarrassed when I asked him if he was aware of the effect he had on the viewer. The thing he was most proud of, he said, was his mental strength. "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."

The other thing I remember from the interview was how he spoke of the team's ambition to become No.1. The "contribution", he said, emphasising the word, was very important. The team was focused on being No. 1, he said, and as long as "I am contributing to that goal, I'll be more than happy".

India went on to win that Test and with it the Border-Gavaskar trophy. Laxman contributed 64 in the first innings and featured in a 146-run fourth wicket partnership with Tendullkar after a mini-collapse during which India lost three wickets for 18 runs. And in Mohali yesterday, he ensured that India will retain the trophy.

ESPNCricinfo announced its all-time India XI last month. Three of his batting partners - Tendulkar, Dravid and Sehwag - made it to the team. Laxman lost out to Vijay Hazare. But who knows what will happen if the exercise is repeated in a couple of years. Laxman still looks good to win India a few more Tests.

For all the beautiful strokes he played at Mohali, the enduring image of Laxman from the Test will be him wildly admonishing Pragyan Ojha for not being alert to a single. If abusing your own team-mates was part of the ICC code of conduct, it could even earn him his first-ever summons to the match referee's chamber, for in one frame he appears to be threatening Ojha with bodily harm with a raised bat. It's a moment to savour: you might never see him this animated on a cricket field again.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 8, 2010, 14:53 GMT

    don't bring Stats.. We are talking about VVS .. Stats doesn't reflect his greatness.. his skills.. his class.. watching him bat is just a feeling that can't be described, his technique is just impeccable..! he's a one of the most underrated player of post 90 era.

  • Ashish on October 8, 2010, 13:14 GMT

    I guess the reason why Sachin almost never has saved a test match in a crisis is that there is no crisis in the first place when he plays well.

  • Cricinfouser on October 8, 2010, 12:28 GMT

    As important as it is to contribute to the 4th innings as Laxman did,the 2nd innings is also important.2nd inningsis where the foundation is laid for a win.As many of u hav said Sachin may not hav contributed to the 4th innings but he scored a 98 in the 2nd innings which laid a foundation for an indian win in 4th innings.I cannot understand why people r nt criticising Sehwag or Dravid for underperforming in the 4th innings but only Sachin.Moreover Sachin was the 2nd highest topscorer in the 4th innings.While Sachin is expected to score highly in both innings,Laxman can escape scoring a 73 in the 4th innings but scoring only 2 in the 2nd innings.Laxman not contributing was the reason that india had a 23 run deficit after 2nd innings.

  • Jackie on October 8, 2010, 11:09 GMT

    Cook is certainly likely to overtake Laxman in the 100s department if he solves his technical problems, but surely a closer comparison is with Bell who also is a beautiful batsman to watch and has batted at his best at 5/6. Laxman batted 14 years for his 16 tons and is now aged 35 with an average of 47. Bell is 7 years his junior and already has 11 tons with an average of 42. As a batsman Bell is now entering the prime time of an international cricketer and is likely to surpass Laxman's average. Since returning to Test Cricket Bell averages 53 for example. While looking at the greats of India, Australia and South Africa it is as well to look back to their stats at the age of 26-28 to compare them with Cook and Bell. I am a great admirer by the way of Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar and of course Ganguly when he was playing. Truly a Fab Four.

  • Milind on October 8, 2010, 2:50 GMT

    VVS & SRT anaylysis in tough situations (4th inn chase or tough draw) VVS-1) 66 vs AUS in Chennai in 4th inn chase of 155 all others failed 2) 74 vs WI in Port of Spain in 3rd inn when India were 4/56 resulted in Win 3)154 vs WI in Kolkata in 3rd inn with 1st inn deficit of 150 runs after India were 4/85 helped draw 4)67 vs NZ in Mohali in 3 rd inn to avoid inn defeat after India were 3/18 5)69 vs AUS in 3rd innings on a Mumbai minefield resulted in win 6)73 vs SA in J'berg in 3rd inn on pacy/bouncy pitch resulted in Win 7)79 vs AUS in Perth in 3rd inn to take India from 160/6 to 294 resulted in Win 8)103 vs SL in Colombo in 4th inn chase of 258 after India were 4/60 9)73 in this match SRT-1)92 vs ENG in Trent Bridge in 3rd inn after deficit of 300 runs helped draw 2)176 vs WI in Kolkata in 4th inn to after 1st inn deficit of 150 runs after India were 4/85 helped draw 3)55 vs AUS in 3rd inn on a Mumbai minefield 4)103 agnst ENG in Chennai in 4th inn chase of 387 5)54 vs SL in Colombo

  • Dummy4 on October 7, 2010, 21:14 GMT

    Why do people keep fighting over who's better in the Indian line up? I feel privileged to be part of a generation which saw Sachin, Rahul, VVS, Dada and Viru among others. Get well soon Soumik and Akash

  • Akash on October 7, 2010, 14:25 GMT

    @Soumik. Righly said. Except 103* in Chennai against England, SRT has nothing to show that he can win or draw Test Matches as well. And that match also we won bcoz of rocking 83 (in 68 balls) by Sehwag and then quickfire 85* by Yuvraj. SRT did contributed to the win but did not win match on its own. I am still not sure why he is selected in All Time India XI. He is no where near to Laxman, Dravid and Sehwag. He has always played for records and this is no hidden truth.

  • Sharad on October 7, 2010, 12:03 GMT

    An indication to how much I've enjoyed this innings by Laxman is not just that I've read all the articles on Cricinfo but also that I've read all (82 so far) the comments to this one. I'M HAPPY TO SAY THAT THIS IS THE BEST BUNCH OF GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT COMMENTS BY AN INDIAN AUDIENCE. Adding my 2 cents to the 'SRT is the greatest' debate: NO HE ISN'T. Growing up in the 90s, I was a massive fan of SRT, I could've matched any of u fans in his adulation. Things started to change when he always took you to the brink of victory but never across the finish line. NO PLAYER HAS GIVEN A HIGHER NUMBER & % OF HEARTACHES TO AN INDIAN THAN SRT. I've observed people say 'He's won us MANY tests' - Really? @mrmonty foolishly asks us to subtract his score. Why keep him in the team then? Someone like M Vijay or Jaffer could've made those runs. SRT is a technically solid man but he isn't a matchwinner. Everybody has their flaws - this is his. Still love him. Everybody contributes; VS & VVS win games.

  • sunny on October 7, 2010, 12:03 GMT

    guess we need more ppl like Meety in these forums than ppl who start comparing players at the drop of a hat......players and team alike should be admired when its really due.i mean aussies sud be admired as a cricketing nation for all their achievements on the field rather than being critisized as is done by most posters.....i believe we indians do admire the aussie fighting spirit thts why victories against them are most cherished ones......i dont think such a victory against say WI wud have provoked so many responses as this one.

  • Guruprasad on October 7, 2010, 10:56 GMT

    @Emancipator007: No bias against Gang. But Gang couldnt have given up captaincy in favour of his batting, because he wouldnt be in the team in the first place !! Gang did his job well up to India's win over Pak in Pak (2004). After that, Gang's batting starting falling apart. In home series against Aus (2004) and Pak (2005), Gang's batting was pathetic. It was Greg's brutal assessment that forced Gang to go back and improve his batting. Sachin and Rahul could afford to give up captaincy in favour of batting, because their batting had not gone as bad as Gang's and because, there were no contenders yet for their places. Gang was the weakest link in India's middle order, and Yuvi was gunning for his place. Gang's place in India's cricket history is assured because of his captaincy, but batting-wise, he overstayed in the Indian TEST team by a year and a half. No questions about his importance in India's ODI team. In Fleming's case, again, NZ had no batsman to challenge Flem for his place.

  • No featured comments at the moment.