October 7, 2010

The genius and the doubter

VVS Laxman is an artist whose strength lies not in his artistry but in his competitive spirit, a batsman who needs adversity to unleash the giant within

VVS Laxman has joined Brian Lara on the short list of modern batsmen whose mastery extends to fourth-innings chases and whose masterpieces include memorable innings played in precisely those circumstances. Where Lara wove spells, Laxman waxed lyrical. Some of the game's greatest batsmen have altered in this very position: a match to win or lose upon a stroke, a ground expectant, the bowlers and fieldsmen pressing with every fibre in their bodies. It is a cricketing form of high noon.

Laxman's decisive contribution in Mohali deserves almost as much recognition as Lara's magnificent innings in Barbados all those years ago. As far as this correspondent is concerned, anyhow, that puts it in a category almost of its own. Not to say it was the greatest innings played. Probably it's not in the top 20 in recent times in that regard. After all, the pitch was still playing well, the bowling was handy as opposed to harmful, and it was neither an unusually long or exceptionally large innings. Its quality lay in its context; in isolation it was superb, in the circumstances it was magnificent.

Lara's last-day effort was a lone hand played by a desperate captain trying to protect his position and rally his troops in about equal measure. It was a commanding display that gradually lured Bajans from their shops and offices, so that towards the end a carnival atmosphere prevailed. It was a virtuous innings by a remarkable cricketer, the sort of contribution India wants its champion to make more often.

Control was the cornerstone of Lara's performance. His hands erupting onto the ball, his feet nimble in their quest for position, eyes darting for a gap, mind assessing every delivery, Lara sustained his team's hopes and crushed Australians' aspirations. Simply, he was in a class of his own. A mediocre team depended on him, and this time he responded. Beyond doubt it was a tour de force.

Laxman's tone was slightly different. From afar he looked like an iceman, at any rate until he started waving his arms at and berating a partner unaware of his intentions in the matter of stolen singles. Suddenly Laxman's passions were obvious, his sense that the match hung upon a thread and that a little mistake, a moment of madness, an oversight, any of them could bring India down just as victory came within reach. If anything, his solitary outburst added to the quality of the performance. He knew the stakes well enough, and the dangers, and still he did not make a single mistake.

Bear in mind, too, that Laxman was nursing an agitated back, which had prevented him batting properly in the first innings or without a runner in this dig. Indeed the Australians were not obliged to permit him an assistant. After all, he had ricked his back in the previous Test, in Sri Lanka. Ricky Ponting could have argued that he had brought the injury into the match, and the umpires could hardly have disagreed. But he did not stoop. By and large Australians don't try to stop the other team winning.

From the moment he arrived at the crease, Laxman looked in charge of himself and the bowling. The Australians had managed to ruffle up a few of the other batsmen and later did the same to the tailenders. But Laxman is above all this nonsense about lifters; he regards them as long hops and smacks them to the boundary. Australians do not go on much about him because they don't have a clear idea of how to get him out. Virender Sehwag is vulnerable to lifters, they reckon, and Tendulkar can be trapped leg-before. Both have patchy records in the fourth innings. But Laxman? What on earth are Australians supposed to do with him? He looks and sometimes bats like a colossus. Indeed, cricket's most hostile opponents bring out the best in him.

Laxman's game is built on superb strokeplay but his mind is replete with doubt. Against weaker opponents he potters around like a spinster in a cluttered home. He knows rivals can smash this sort of bowling about, but dares not take the same risk himself. He is a Prufrock worrying about his trousers. He becomes a hack, a humdrum batsman trying to boost his figures. As soon as Laxman starts to think about averages he becomes average. It is not his way, does not serve him well.

And then the Australians arrive with their unrelenting aggression and withering tongues, or so legend insists. Suddenly Laxman is transformed, like a bird released from a cage. Now he is in his element. He knows the rest, the challengers, cannot cope. And so he started laying about himself with cultured and well-chosen strokes. In a trice the giant within is unleashed.

Add the challenge of a fourth-innings chase and he becomes a truly great batsman. It is the final release. All inhibitions cast aside, the competitor and idealist come to the fore. At heart he is a musketeer. And so it proved in Mohali.

Once the main batsmen had departed, Tendulkar to a foolish stroke, MS Dhoni in a chaotic run-out blamed upon Suresh Raina, a runner who seemed as dangerous to the Indian cause as any Australian bowler, Laxman took the match on his own shoulders. Throughout he organised the strategy. As usual in this situation, the fielding captain had pushed his men back for the main batsman, a tactic that works about as well as invading Russia or Afghanistan. Laxman was not encouraged to take risks and so waited for chances to drive, flick or pull boundaries, and otherwise stroke the ball around.

Laxman's game is built on superb strokeplay but his mind is replete with doubt. Against weaker opponents he potters around like a spinster in a cluttered home. He knows rivals can smash this sort of bowling about, but dares not take the same risk himself. He is a Prufrock worrying about his trousers

Crucially he decided to take every run on offer, at any rate until Mitchell Johnson summoned a fierce spell with a dozen or so runs needed for victory. Laxman realised India could not win unless the tailenders played their parts, sensed he could not score all the 80 runs, could not do it alone. Trusting Ishant Sharma, another strong-minded cricketer with an excellent temperament, he took singles at the start of the over. Indeed, Ishant faced more deliveries in the partnership than Laxman. Since the field was up for him, he was also able to score his share of the required runs.

Australia's tactics were questionable. Pushing the field back for Laxman meant that the runs kept flowing. Maiden overs were almost impossible. As a result the batsmen were never forced to press. If anything, the Australians over-attacked Ishant, allowing him to score soft runs. Several times Ishant was able to push Marcus North into the covers and take runs. North is a part-timer. Ponting did not prey enough on the batsmen's nerves. Admittedly he did not have a top-class spinner at his disposal, and towards the end he lost Doug Bollinger. Australia might hereafter be reluctant to allow players to take part in 20-over matches on another continent a few days before the start of a Test series.

Laxman did not falter. Often the last few runs are the hardest to collect. Suddenly victory is in reach. Suddenly there is a match to lose, not win. Ishant's unlucky departure did not seem to worry Laxman.

India almost paid a heavy price for their ridiculous refusal to use the UDRS. Apparently the senior batsmen object to it. Sehwag is the exception. It seems the rest don't like the UDRS telling them they are out. More fool them. Let them use their bats not their pads, let them think about the game and the umpires and fair play.

Of course, the UDRS would certainly have overturned Billy Bowden's error in denying an lbw with the last pair at the crease. To make matters worse, four overthrows were given away in the same incident. Both umpires started the match very well and ended badly. It was hot and they were tired. All the more reason to give them a helping hand.

Laxman was not to be denied. In full flight he is a hard man to stop. He stood at square leg as the appeal was turned down, stood again as the next ball flew from pad towards long leg, urged both partners to run, and raised his arms as, finally, the deed was done. It was a thrilling end to a tight match. India had found their champion. Laxman had confirmed his standing in the game. His career has been a compelling tale of greatness remaining locked away in the mind till the call comes and then emerging and laying waste before retreating back into its shell. As far as cricket is concerned Laxman is a warrior by instinct and a man of peace by manner. The conflict has made his career fascinating and frustrating. His genius is peculiar and requires the most particular conditions. His greatness lies in the fact that those conditions are the toughest not the easiest. He is an artist whose strength lies not in his artistry but in his competitive spirit.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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