A wizard among muggles
VVS Laxman's retirement from international cricket comes like all significant retirements do - with a wave of gratitude and a sense of impending gloom. The gloom is largely impractical because everyone - the good, the great, the not-so-good, and the downright ugly - must someday leave the game.
The wave of gratitude in Laxman's case will be tidal, given the nature of his presence in India's greatest-ever middle order. To borrow from JK Rowling, in a dressing room of muggles - of varying and outstanding gifts, achievements and records - Laxman was always the only wizard.
His announcement comes the day after New Zealand landed in India for a two-Test series. For the last 24 hours, the strongest rumour doing the rounds was that this largely ho-hum season opener would become a rousing farewell tour for Laxman. And why not? The best of his cricket has been rousing stuff anyway, so some noise and sparkle in return, as he goes, would only have been in order.
Yet, far removed from noise and sparkle, in his retirement speech Laxman talked of his "inner voice" and its call to put the team's needs ahead of his "personal aspirations" - successful home series against Australia and England. As much as the immediate effect of his retirement surprised everyone, it ideally shouldn't have, mostly because it was Laxman. As the excess and flamboyance of Indian cricket has been amped up in these last few years, Laxman has remained a man of another time, given largely to modesty and graciousness. It is what he will be remembered for by his team-mates and the crowd. That and the wizardry of his batting, with its ability to defy coaching templates and the geometry of the game, and to make the most manic of situations melt away.
Laxman spoke of the fiendish difficulty of arriving at the decision and the "internal dialogue" that went through his mind for the last four or five days. His decision was conveyed to the selectors and the Indian board only on Saturday morning. If it unintentionally left the outgoing selectors with red faces, it is hard to sympathise with them. The Indian Test team may have played badly in the last 12 months, but the selectors have been way worse.
Laxman, however, leaves on his terms, with a clear conscience and the widest, most radiant grin in the game. When he was into the first two sentences of his retirement speech, the electricity failed in the Uppal Stadium's swish conference room. As Laxman laughed, the seriousness of the announcement dissolved a little.
What triggered Laxman's internal dialogue is not known. Wherever his internal tussle came from, it led to an utterly sound decision in cricketing terms: "to give an opportunity to youngsters, and no better than against an inexperienced New Zealand bowling attack."
Whenever great players retire - and Laxman's greatness is a part of the fabric of Indian cricket more than its record books - there is much discussion about "legacy" and the last few months of their career. What usually happens is the opposite: the mind goes into high-speed rewind, the last few months, if not glorious, fade into insignificance, and all that remains is a highlights package of memories. The highlights package of Laxman's career can be stuck into Harry Potter novels, replete as it is with adventure, drama and, of course, magic.
In Laxman's decision to stick on and play Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad lies something romantic, old-fashioned and quite Laxmanesque. This is, after all, an age when cricketers focus their attention on trimming their long-format games in order to stay relevant in T20. Laxman has spent recent months in fierce training. In his last competitive fixture, in the KSCA's invitational Shafi Darashah four-day tournament, he scored 169 for the Hyderabad Cricket Association XI against the KSCA XI in Mysore as recently as ten days ago. There is no doubt that he can still turn out for his struggling first-class team, and that he could even turn its fortunes around. When he plays home games for Hyderabad now, he will bat at an end in the Uppal stadium that will be named after him. In his own retiring, self-effacing yet proud way, he is his city Hyderabad's premier cricketer, bar none.
A unique and distinct batsman, Laxman has often been revealed by his career choices. At the turn of the century he told the selectors that he was not willing to be turned into a makeshift opener, ready to take a leap of faith and fight for his place in the middle order. When the IPL was being founded, Laxman gave up his "icon" status - i.e. a 15% higher earning than the highest-paid players - so that Deccan Chargers could have more funds at their disposal during the first auction. He has never talked about what he was promised by the owners in return for surrendering "icon" status and what he was actually paid. There's a very good chance it was neither equal nor more.
India's greatest middle order is now completely disbanded. The only man left in it is the man who became its foundation - Sachin Tendulkar. He will be batting in the Hyderabad Test around a remodelled line-up. He will look around the dressing room and miss colleagues of familiar and reassuring quality.
Yet for every rookie, starting out at home is actually the most comfortable of introductions to the demanding world of Test cricket. For most of his career in the middle order, whether at Nos. 3, 5, or 6, Laxman was always up to answering the most bafflingly difficult of Test cricket's demands. No muggle could possibly replicate the wizard's batting. The least a successor could attempt to do would be to match Laxman's mettle.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo