The steel beneath the silk
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.
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