August 24, 2012

The man who brought thrills and hope

Laxman excited with his elegance, then he instilled a sense of calm. In between, he played the greatest innings by an Indian

It was always "chik", that sound from VVS Laxman's bat when it met ball; a gentle sound, barely audible, a pleasant meeting of two otherwise antagonistic elements. And I often wondered if he would one day play a shot that made no noise at all, as if there were no protest from the ball. It was always like that, always "chik", never the more laboured, more demanding, "thok". No, that was a sound for you and me, for people who needed to muscle a ball, to discipline it.

Only once did I hear him go "thok", in an IPL game, when he was trying to heave a ball over midwicket. He was throwing bat at ball, like a painter of fine miniatures splashing colours, a sitarist playing the drums, a polite man raising his voice. It wasn't him. Laxman and the IPL were never friends, and you could see why.

You could also see why Laxman might have made a fine surgeon; gentle, precise incisions - they might even have been painless - and a sense of calm around him. Indeed, that was what it was thought he was meant to be, coming as he did from a family of doctors. When his parents were told their son could bat, when word began to spread that a kid was batting with a feather, they let him find his calling. But when the schoolboy came home, there was an earthworm laid out to be dissected on one of those trays biology students will recognise. He had missed school and his education was still important.

Early in his career Laxman was the strokeplayer, revelling against pace, standing up to punch deliciously through cover, or merely pausing in the midst of what others might have called an off-drive, or even pulling through midwicket. He did all that in an astonishing innings in Sydney a few days after the fireworks had announced the end of a millennium. It was one of the finest innings I have seen played against fast bowling: 167 out of 261, against McGrath, Fleming, Lee and Warne, with 27 boundaries.

The SCG might have made him feel at home, and it invariably did, but it had to take second place in his career to Eden Gardens, where he averaged 110 from ten Tests (at the SCG, a relatively more modest 78 with three centuries from four Tests). He made five centuries in Kolkata, none more celebrated than that 281, but there was another innings that was to announce the arrival of a man so light on his feet that he seemed to skip towards wherever the ball was pitched.

It was March 1998 and Laxman opened the batting with Navjot Sidhu (wouldn't that have been a priceless mid-wicket conversation!). He made 95 but that was the first time you saw him dance out to Shane Warne and play against the turn through midwicket; or rather against some perceived turn, because he was right where the ball pitched. And then, as if to pay obeisance to an old art, he hit the same ball inside-out through cover occasionally. It was as thrilling a display of batsmanship against spin as any you will see; a sneak preview, maybe, of what was to come three years later, when he played not just the finest but the grandest Test innings by an Indian.

It was inevitable, then, to compare him to that other great Hyderabad batsman, Mohammad Azharuddin. You could see they came from the same school of batsmanship - wrists so supple and obedient that they diverted the ball into crazy spaces just when it seemed it was sniffing at the stumps. Their records aren't dissimilar. Azhar averaged 45.03 from 99 Tests to Laxman's 45.97 from 134. Azhar had 22 centuries and 21 fifties, an amazing conversion, compared to Laxman's 17 centuries and 56 fifties. Once he vacated No. 3 early in his career, Azhar batted at No. 5, which is around where Laxman gravitated to. But Azhar remained the athlete throughout, always light on his feet, whereas Laxman grew a little heavier and tended to, as Aakash Chopra recently pointed out, reach for the ball with his hands in the latter half of his career. Both were remarkably delicate of touch, though Laxman handled pace, and specifically bounce, significantly better.

And until the world of glamour and high-street labels entrapped Azhar, they were very similar people: warm, generous, god-fearing and extraordinarily humble. Hyderabad was like that in the '80s and early '90s; an unhurried city where commerce had merely a bit role, where people spent hours in each other's company and hugged warmly. In August 2012, when Laxman announced his retirement, it was done with the dignity of a man unchanged by commerce and opportunity, who continued to give freely. It was, if I may be permitted a bit of indulgence, Hyderabad as it used to be.

I often wondered if he would one day play a shot that made no noise at all, as if there were no protest from the ball

By 2001, Azhar had gone, in the kind of cinematic twist that nobody who saw him as a young man could have imagined. India needed reassurance, for the fan was hurt and felt cheated. A group came together then, a strong confluence of character, and shepherded India through. Sachin Tendulkar was the senior-most, only marginally so over Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath; Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, so similar in culture and upbringing, were finding their feet; and at the helm was Sourav Ganguly, a little more brash but his heart belonged to India. It was against this backdrop that the 281 was scored. On the 14th of March, two men of great pedigree put on 335 without being separated. India won the next day, when a callow Sikh took six wickets. India re-embraced cricket, and the shyest of that amazing group of cricketers was centre-stage.

The 281 was followed by spectacular cameos, and it wasn't till Australia again, in 2003, that he rediscovered his best. In December he made 148 in a memorable win in Adelaide, and then Sydney welcomed him again. On the 3rd of January 2004, he made 178. Then in coloured clothing but with similar finesse, he made 103 not out on the 18th, and 106 on the 22nd, both against Australia, and on the 24th he made 131 against Zimbabwe. That was his peak. To merely watch was to be aware that we were in the presence of rare beauty.

He never batted like that again, except maybe for the customary century in Sydney in 2008, when he made 109. The new Laxman was less thrilling, more restrained. In his last 51 Tests he averaged 51.36 compared to a career average of 45.97. He was more solid, more dependable; the lightness of touch was still there, the dignity unwavering, but he wasn't the fencer anymore; he didn't dart towards the ball. Instead, he waited for it, played more from his crease. Where you were on the edge of your seat before, you now sat more calmly. Indeed, he now brought hope where he had dealt in thrill.

And thus he played out his career, the moving ball posing more problems towards the end. It is inevitable, for the faculties must dim. The yearning for the touch, the lightness of execution, grew. Occasionally the ball would still kiss the blade fleetingly and vanish to the boundary, as a reminder of the artist we had in our midst. In India, where he recognised every accent, every idiom a ball could come up with, he could have given himself another year. He really did want to beat England and Australia again.

But it wasn't to be. A man of deep faith and integrity said he listened to an inner divine voice that told him the time had come. And we must believe him, for this is not the time to search for conspiracy. A career of a wonderful man and outstanding batsman is now behind us and it has left us with many memories to savour.

Laxman had something every cricketer dreams of: respect in his dressing room and in those of his opponents. And the opportunity to leave our game richer. It's been a mighty fine innings.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here