December 20, 2011

'Australia's aggression gets the best out of me'

Before he left for the series, VVS Laxman spoke about one of his favourite challenges - playing down under

Is Australia still the place to win in for you? For you and Rahul and Sachin…
Oh, absolutely. That's one place where any cricketer would love to do well and win the series for the team. I have always felt that Australia in Australia are very formidable. For the simple reason that they know their conditions quite well, and their brand of cricket is aggressive. The nature of the wickets assists them to play aggressively. Always it's a huge challenge playing Australia in Australia. Really looking forward to doing well again this year, and also hopefully realise our dream of winning the series there.

Is the charm in any way lessened because their team has now become weaker?
Actually they have got a very good side. You cannot compare them to the likes of, say, Steve Waugh or [Adam] Gilchrist or Shane Warne or the other legends, but their batting line-up hasn't really changed. They have still got four batsmen who have been playing for such a long time. You have got Shane Watson, Mike Hussey, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. They have always been there for the last two-three years. Ponting is the greatest Australian batsman, probably, after Bradman.

Yeah, their bowling [has changed]. Except for Mitchell Johnson, all the other bowlers are quite new. Saying that, they have done well, especially in the last Test against South Africa. And beating South Africa in South Africa is obviously a huge achievement. It's very important to not underestimate anyone.

Also, not too much emphasis should be given [to the] opposition. We think what we are capable of doing. We have to focus to do the right things as far as we are concerned.

Mentally, do you think you might have an edge? Of the last eight Tests against Australia, you have won five and drawn three.
Obviously whenever you do well against a particular opponent, you go with that kind of confidence. Definitely you are high on confidence. Saying that, it's very important to start afresh. Assess the situation and conditions and play accordingly. Not thinking too much about what happened in the past. And not thinking too far ahead. It is important to do well in that particular moment.

Personally, what's special about playing in Australia?
I have always enjoyed watching cricket in Australia. Right from my younger days, I used to get up early in the morning... I don't know why, but something used to excite me [about] watching cricket in Australia. Also, listening to the legends like Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell - you could gather a lot. I always felt great watching cricket in Australia. And also felt really good that my first Test hundred came in Australia. I always relished playing in those conditions. They are great wickets to bat on. Obviously, great atmosphere around, because so many people come and watch Tests and are so supportive of good quality cricket, irrespective of which team is doing well. It's a great place to tour, and I have had really good experiences touring Australia.

People considered Australia to be the toughest place to tour until recently. You found it the opposite.
No, it's definitely tough. I am not saying that it is not challenging. It is definitely a very challenging place to play cricket. Saying that, I, and I am sure the entire team, relish the challenge. And that's why when we play against Australia, our game goes a level ahead, probably.

What are the challenges as a batsman and as a team to go and win in Australia?
It's quite different to what we have grown up on. The bounce is a huge difference. There's lot of bounce compared to the wickets in India, and also pace off the wicket. They are much quicker than what you get in India. Those two are very important for us to assess and adjust to as soon as possible. Obviously the new ball will be a key factor. Unlike in India, the new ball will be a very important period. As a bowling side you would like to get wickets and make it count. As a batting side you would want to see the shine off and then play a lot more shots. So I think the new ball will be the key there.

"I don't like to rate innings, but the Adelaide one was very special, because from the situation we were in we went on to win the Test match there. Any hundred in Australian conditions is satisfying, but the situation we were in, and having a partnership with Rahul [Dravid], it was very satisfying"

How are you preparing for the tour?
Personally, because of the past experiences you know if you do certain kind of drills it will help you get used to the bounce. Luckily for us, we [players not part of the ODI side] are going early this time, so we will get a lot of time and opportunity to get acclimatised to those conditions. I firmly believe that how much ever simulation you do in India, it's always important to get to Australia and get used to the conditions. The net practices and training sessions will be very critical for us to get used to the conditions as early as possible.

How did you prepare on your previous tours?
Similar drills. Nowadays, because you are playing so much cricket, you end up playing a series and immediately go to Australia. I remember the last time we played against Pakistan and then we went there. Now there is a slight gap for those who are not part of the one-day squad. I think it is very important that you get used to the conditions once you land in Australia and make those two practice games count.

Why do you do so well against Australia?
It is strange that right from my Under-19 days I have done well against the Australians. Probably their aggressive nature gets the best out of me. From the wickets point of view, I have always enjoyed batting there because I like wickets with a lot of bounce and pace. I like the ball to come on to the bat much more than you get in Indian conditions. I have always enjoyed batting in Australia. It's very important to settle down. Once you get in, you can play a lot more shots than you can play in India.

Are you thinking about the bowlers you are going to face?
I watched, especially when they played the last Test against South Africa. I watched their bowlers, but it will be a new challenge. Except for Mitchell Johnson, I have not faced the other bowlers. It will be something I am really looking forward to.

What do you make of Pat Cummins?
Not only Pat Cummins, but also Ryan Harris has done well for them, [Peter] Siddle has done well for them. Cummins is young and promising. He is quite quick and obviously he is quite raw, so he will bring a lot of energy. Mitchell Johnson has been there for some time. Even Nathan Lyon is quite a decent spinner. So they have got quite a good bowling line-up. I still feel they are a formidable team.

Roughly from 2007 onwards your career has found another level. From about 42 your average is now nudging 48. What has happened?
I have really enjoyed my cricket from 2007 onwards, especially from the time Anil [Kumble] became captain, and then Gary [Kirsten] and MS [Dhoni] took over. I have really enjoyed it. The dressing-room atmosphere has been great. That helps me to go out and play with a free mind. A lot of credit has to be given to Gary and Dhoni for the way they have handled the team.

You have scored seven centuries in this period, but you must have missed another seven.
Absolutely. That has been one regret. I keep missing hundreds. (laughs)

For me the satisfying thing is, I have played some important match-winning knocks for my country irrespective of whether I got a hundred or a seventy or an eighty. As long as that knock helps the team out of a tough situation, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. Saying that, I would have loved to have scored more hundreds than I have.

This rise has also coincided with the trouble with your back. How do you manage it?
The last year was very bad. Especially during the Sri Lanka Test and after that. Because I continued batting with the back spasms, it probably aggravated. Luckily the physio and trainer managed me and got me through the season, and I played till South Africa. After the South Africa series I have been working really hard. A lot of credit should go to our physio, Ashish, and Sudarshan from the NCA. They worked hard on my back and had a very good schedule planned for me. That's paying rich dividends. If you see, I am back fielding at silly point and backward short leg, which I was not able to do because of the back. I am quite happy with the progress and the way the back has held up till now.

How much work does it need on a daily basis?
It is not generally focusing now on the back. I have got over that now. What is important is to maintain my overall fitness, and I feel I am much fitter, much stronger than I was probably three years back. These two guys really helped me, and their programme was very good. It helped me become stronger and better conditioned. Now I am concentrating not just on the back but overall body.

You played two of your best innings when the back pain was at its worst. How?
(Laughs) They were important knocks for the country. Once you are there, you don't concentrate too much on your body or your pain. Your focus shifts to the task at hand. It is something which is very important for me. You forget about the pain and just do well.

Was last year one of the most satisfactory ones of your career?
Definitely. The kind of knocks I played in the situation… Apart from Durban, Mohali and P Sara, I thought the one in Ahmedabad was very critical. Against New Zealand. I got 91, and had a partnership with Bhajji [Harbhajan Singh]. He ended up getting a hundred. We were struggling at 15 for 5, and it would have been very embarrassing if we didn't have that partnership. I am very happy and contented with the last year, that I have played some important knocks for the team.

In Ahmedabad you were given lbw off an inside edge…
(Laughs) Yeah, it is disappointing I keep missing hundreds for various reasons. Even in Durban I was 96, batting with the last batsman, and got out. You get disappointed when you know you are batting well and keep missing the three-figure mark.

Any thoughts of retirement as of now?
No, none at all. As I mentioned, I am feeling good from the body point of view and also from the motivation point of view. It was never a problem for me. Every day I still get up with the same kind of enthusiasm that I had probably at the start of my career. I take a lot of honour in representing the country, and I feel it is a great privilege to get an opportunity to do something for the country. I am still enjoying the game and still performing consistently. I am not thinking along those lines. At the moment I am concentrating on doing well in Australia and don't have any other thoughts in my mind.

"I keep missing hundreds. For me the satisfying thing is, I have played some important match-winning knocks for my country, irrespective of whether I got a hundred or a seventy or an eighty. As long as that knock helps them team out of a tough situation, it gives me a lot of satisfaction"

Has the thought ever come up in the past?
Never. Since 2007 I have been performing consistently, and I never think too far ahead. If I am doing well, if I am preparing well for every match, and feel I am contributing to the team, I don't think about other things.

There must have been disappointments even in this period…
There have been lots of disappointments. For example, that last innings in Bombay. That's a situation I would love, to actually win the game for the team, but I got out when I was settling well, and I had had a good partnership with Virat [Kohli], and I got out at 32. That kind of innings disappoints me. That kind of opportunity I always like to seize and do well for the team.

England also must have been a big disappointment because you got starts there.
England was a huge disappointment, obviously for the team, and for me, because I got the starts. Except for the last Test, I thought I batted really well in all the three Tests, and I was dominating the attack when I lost my wicket. It was a little disappointing to not convert the starts. If I had done that then I would have contributed much better to the team. It was a tough tour for the entire team for various reasons. And I am sure that we have learned from that experience and hopefully we will improve.

I remember only two kinds of dismissals. Either those unplayable deliveries from James Anderson or the pull.
It was a mixture. Throwing away… not throwing away exactly, but not executing the pull shot properly. Also, I thought I got some real good deliveries, especially from Anderson, and from [Stuart] Broad in the first innings at The Oval. At the international level you are expected to counter those deliveries. Overall, I was disappointed with my performance, especially when the team was in the types of situations I relish and do well in. I was not able to use those opportunities.

Do you need to cut out or look again at the pull, especially going to Australia, with the bounce there?
It depends on your gameplan at that particular moment. Against what kind of bowlers you are playing the shot. You can't generalise the gameplan. It depends on the bounce on the wicket, and the way the bowlers are bowling. Accordingly, you play. I have always been a firm believer that it's about poor execution. It's not necessary that you have to cut down on a shot that has got you out. It's about how you choose to play the shot that is important.

Among the many fond memories in Australia, which one is most special?
I don't like to rate innings in comparison with others, but the Adelaide one was very special because from the situation we were in we went on to win the Test match there. Any hundred in Australian conditions is satisfying, but the situation we were in, and having a partnership with Rahul [Dravid], it was very satisfying.

How do you rate India's chances on this tour?
I think we have got a very good chance, but as I mentioned it is very important to concentrate to the process and do the right things more often than the Australians do. If we can do that, and play to our potential, we have got a very good chance. I am not one to think too much of the result now.

So you probably don't want to think about the fact that this might the best, and probably last, chance for you three to win a series in Australia?
I think every tour we go to, we think we have got a chance to win the series. It is not that just depending on the strength and weakness of the opposition we feel confident we can win the series. It's been a great experience in Australia, and I have always enjoyed playing against Australia and in Australia, so hopefully I will make it count this time as well.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo