August 21, 2012

Laxman the revolutionary

You could marvel at VVS Laxman's unorthodox style as long as you didn't try it at home

As I look back to my first memories of VVS Laxman, a scene from a South Zone v North Zone Duleep Trophy game in January 2001 plays itself out vividly in my mind.

There were about 15 international cricketers playing in that game, and clearly the quality of cricket was top-notch. Though heaps of runs were scored, it was Laxman's love for refined cricket, which he played with the utmost subtlety and culture, and his supreme skill, that stood out in a way that it remains etched in my mind till this day. Such was his aura that a team-mate had to point out that instead of cheering for our bowlers and egging our team on, I was celebrating Laxman's fine display. It's hard to not be influenced and inspired by greatness.

Laxman had been striking two or three boundaries every over without breaking a sweat, and it felt as if getting smacked all over the park was a small price to pay to witness something truly spectacular. That's what Laxman did all his life to his team-mates and opposition - while his team-mates appreciated his craft, the opposition wished they could be on his side.

Standing in that lonely slip position that day, I was made aware of the fact that a seemingly orthodox, unadventurous-seeming, rather reticent-looking man could play revolutionary cricket; that the belief that cricket is an extension of one's personality wasn't always true. Laxman had made his nonconformist style look like a chapter from the coaching manual - one that the guidebook had been forced to include.

Working the angles
Most young batsmen are taught that the easiest way to bat is to play the ball back in the direction it came from, which basically means playing it with a straight bat. Once you grow as a batsman, you learn to play with the swing and spin, which is an extension of playing with the straight bat. You further learn to either play a little early or to delay the stroke to find gaps, but you're always advised not to play across the line or against the spin or swing.

Laxman turned these fundamentals on their head by not only showing that meeting the ball with an angled bat produces desirable results but also proving that playing with the spin and swing is overrated. Though his style of play made batting look ever so easy, if inspected in detail, it was nothing less than an engineering marvel, for he worked out the angles astutely.

You're advised not to play against the spin, especially when a bowler of Shane Warne's quality is bowling into the rough, but Laxman showed that you can, with good results, if you close the face of the bat at precisely the time of impact (and not a fraction earlier, like more ordinary batsmen tend to do, resulting in return catches). By doing so, he created extraordinary angles, piercing the well-guarded on-side field. His ability to create these angles by, at times, bringing the bat down at a slight angle, or using his supple wrists, enabled him to find gaps where others found fielders. Muttiah Muralitharan, another champion bowler, said that Laxman could potentially play shots on either side of the wicket to any given ball, which made it impossible for a captain to set fields for him.

Playing it late
Most batsmen who are extremely strong off the legs have a technical deficiency that forces their head to fall slightly towards the off side in the stance. The moment the head falls, the judgement of lines gets blurred. This results in hitting balls pitched on off-middle towards the on side. Essentially, these players' affinity for the on side is a byproduct of a technical flaw.

Laxman's preference for the on-side, though, was by design, and he was equally fluent through the off side. His supple wrists and his ability to delay a shot till the last possible instant allowed him to hit balls pitched on middle stump to the right of the square-leg umpire. This is perhaps the most difficult shot to create, because if you don't find the pinpoint precision necessary, you're doomed. You not only have to delay the shot when attempting this stroke, you also need to close the bat face completely (almost showing the edge of the bat to the bowler), and yet hit the ball from the middle.

This became a routine - just when the bowler thought the ball was going to elude Laxman, because he looked visibly late on it, the bat would come down. If Laxman had delayed his shots by even a fraction more than he did, the ball would have hit his body or the stumps. Such was his pristine timing.

Economy of movement
As expansive as Laxman's hand movements were, he was frugal when it came to moving his feet to reach the pitch of the ball, for he could make up for it with his hands. The lack of movement made him extremely still at the crease, which meant that he was rarely off balance. The lack of foot movement created room for his arms and hands to work freely, which made him a free-flowing batsman when in form. The flip side of reaching the ball with hands and not feet was that it didn't look very compact when he was out of form, like in Australia last winter.

Laxman's cricket has been a paradox of a zen-like façade and a fighter's instinct within. Perhaps that's what makes him one of the most intriguing cricketers of our times. His batting has been a viewer's delight, and many Laxman innings have been spectacular cricket extravaganzas. Some of his shots deserve a statutory warning: these stunts have been performed by an expert, please don't try them at home!

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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