January 31, 2012

Goodbye, Laxman

For over a decade his best was saved for Australia, thrilling prime ministers and lesser folk - until this tour

VVS Laxman set foot in Australia on a Wednesday. Thursday was sunny, a sun shower skimming over the Gabba's practice nets and wetting the grass, causing Sourav Ganguly to slide in his bowler's run-up and sprain an ankle. On Friday, promoted from 12th-man duties to play in a still-sore Ganguly's stead, Laxman hit Queensland for 113.

Happenstance. That 113, in November 1999, sealed Laxman's spot in India's side, and in the Tests and one-dayers that followed he nearly squandered it - 41, 0, 5, 1, 7, 167, 9, 2, 2, 7, 1 and 3, the 167 reading like a typo now, and feeling at the time like a dream, a four-hour dream in a dead last Test, green caps crowding Laxman's bat and Laxman whipping balls in a triangle between mid-on and midwicket with a wrist-flick like rustling leaves, only muscular. TV watchers thought they could hear it.

He talked his way through the press conference afterwards. He turned for the dressing room. He stopped to sign autographs. He heard, coming out of reverie, a voice. "You know, you really made my day today" - John Howard's voice, Australia's prime minister.

Watching David Gower bat for Leicestershire one day, a Somerset supporter confided to journalist Alan Gibson that he hoped Gower might make fifty. Fifty came swiftly, and the Somerset man wished for 100 - in vain, Gower picking that moment to edge to slip. "Brightness," reported Gibson, "fell from the air."

Gower's comings and goings had that effect on Australians, too, made them hope he might linger awhile and sad when he went. Not many visiting batsmen in memory have had that power. Only the brilliant but fragile have it. The high probability that they won't quite click means that on the days when everything does click, watching cricket can feel like going to the movies. Gower had this in him, so did his rag-doll fellow Englishman Derek Randall, and Sri Lanka's Aravinda de Silva, and Pakistanis Majid Khan and, fleetingly, pipsqueak Qasim Omar, along with half a handful of West Indians, Roy Fredericks and Lawrence Rowe and Richie Richardson - late-era, purple sombrero-wearing, vulnerable Richie Richardson. Maybe two or three others. And VVS.

Happenstance happened upon him again in March 2001. He was batting with the tail in Kolkata, his slot in the team still dodgy, when an out-looking lbw shout at 9 for 140 - Venkatesh Prasad, trapped by a full toss - was judged not out. Laxman was on 37. He clattered his way to 59, confidence rising, until an umpire dispatched him caught off the wrist, which was happenstance again, because Laxman wasn't yet tired out, so when Australia enforced the follow-on he was asked to keep his pads on and march back out at number three, which he did. The rest is written on plinths, 281 for Laxman, 376 match-turning runs with Rahul Dravid, their partnership finding a dazzling 303-run encore two years later. In Adelaide. So Australia's bowlers were the sufferers again. Australia's TV watchers - again - were the lucky ones.

As a baby he watched his uncle hit tennis balls against a wall in his grandmother's backyard. Later, he'd wake with the sun to see Allan Border's canary yellows play their cigarette cup one-dayers. "It gave me," he has said, "a special feeling to watch cricket in Australia." When he abandoned his medicine school entry exams it was to attend a Bangalore cricket camp leading into three Under-19 Tests against Australia. Wrist-ravaging an attack of Gillespie, Lee and Nicholson, he averaged 110. For years his average was 10 bigger against Australia than against everyone else's bowlers. The differential is down to 3.7 now. The special feeling stretches on. It is mutual. Australians are proud of it. Laxman doesn't deny it. Asked to explain it, he always offers the same one word. "Coincidence."

He talked his way through the press conference afterwards. He turned for the dressing room. He stopped to sign autographs. He heard, coming out of reverie, a voice. "You know, you really made my day today" - John Howard's voice, Australia's prime minister

A square cut during a 178 in Sydney split a gap between fielders Hayden and Langer, stationed within hand-holding distance of each other yet denied a quarter-second to move. Afterwards Laxman could not, or could barely, remember the shot. This innings coaxed out of Sachin Tendulkar, who'd made 241 himself, a compliment of such sumptuousness it makes most other cricketing compliments look backhanded: "I just decided I was going to stay there and watch… from the non-striker's end."

Another Sydney special, a 109, was jump-started with ten fours in Laxman's first 43 balls. After a 200 not out in Delhi, Stuart Clark complained he'd expected Laxman to thread off-side deliveries through midwicket, this was what he'd planned for, but Laxman kept doing it anyway. This echoed a better seam bowler than Clark's lament of Kolkata 2001 - "It didn't matter where you bowled," said Glenn McGrath, "or what you bowled" - a common puzzle of bowlers bowling to Laxman, a feeling of powerlessness, there being little or no correlation between a ball's merits and the ball's eventual destination. Wristwork is key to understanding. I'm "more hands", is Laxman's theory - and all heart, it feels like. Fours flow with no "look at me" note affixed to them. His tennis ball-hitting uncle, Baba Krishnamohan, admires Laxman's on-drive, off-drive, straight drive, cover drive, back-foot cover punch, pull shot and flick off the toes. Most top batsmen, Krishnamohan believes, have five good shots and his nephew has seven - had seven, rather.

A languid melancholy has clung to Laxman's movements this summer just gone, right up to the fourth evening in Adelaide. With 40 minutes to go his bat entered shutdown-till-stumps mode but his mind could not concentrate. Tapping fixatedly at the crease-line, he peeped up in time to see bowler Hilfenhaus about to let fly. Later that over, as he loped a single, square leg's direct hit nearly beat him - plonking, not grounding, his bat in. Next, a jab outside off; an edge. Straight at second slip's face. Down plopped the ball. Midwicket was moved in. Did Laxman not see? Three metres from the bat. And Laxman slapped straight to him.

The first innings had been little better, although there was one blast of the familiar when Laxman was on 11. Siddle pitched up, off stump or thereabouts, and with a snap of the wrists the ball was sent screeching to mid-on. No run, but magnificent, and it made you look twice. The second time you looked, you noticed that Virat Kohli had hit it, not Laxman. Laxman was at the non-striker's end. The last plane out of Australia must leave soon.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country