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

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  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2012, 20:37 GMT

    Further someone rightly pointed out that Laxman got bold too often against pace & was a total failure on fast tracks.........bcz he was a form player with weak defence & form is temporary class is permanent.................He could perform only on his day on flat wicket that day would come only occasionally.........The biggest flaw in his technique was that he would not come on front foot to full deliveries, would not cover the line of ball and would close or open the face (instead of pointing it to bowler) like Rohit (Nohit) Sharma does; making him a big candidate for bold

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2012, 20:28 GMT

    E.g in a 350 run chase top order batsmen scored 347 for 9 wickets and the last batsman Mr. L hits the 4 & team wins - All these Indians will think that Mr. L is the Man of the Match bcz he hit the winning runs & will overlook the batsmen who brought score to so close to wining score.......That Mr. L is Laxman...............If some of u remember Sandstorm Sharjah cup 98 qualifying game against Aus the selfish Laxman was there at crease when Sachin got out at 140 odd & Ind needed only 20 runs at 6 rpo to win but Selfish Laxman preferred remaining not out (to inflate his avg) over team victory & didn't even try any big hits he just blocked deliveries & remained NO.

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2012, 20:07 GMT

    Overrated inconsistent batsman with mediocre avg (& even that too inflated by a large proportion of NOs) whose low scores put pressure on other batsmen and rendered India lots of losses. In few matches in which he made up for his poor performance in first inn India managed to win ..............Laxman did nothing in 1st inn yet India managed to score 400 with efforts from rest of the batsmen. Now Ind need 220 in 2nd inn, rest of batsmen accumulate 150 and Laxman partially does his job by scoring 70 (whereas he was due 100 runs since he scored nothing in 1st inn) and Ind wins this appears like bollywood movie finish that all Indians like and they think falsely that Laxman singlehandedly won the game......huh......he was the culprit whose bad performance in 1st inn had made target stiffer in 2nd inn in other games he performs bad in both inn resulting in India playing with 1 less batsman (the Laxman zero batsman) hence India loses those games

  • Prashanth on August 27, 2012, 17:56 GMT

    I was waiting for this article to come up Harsha!! This is a perfect tribute to a legend!

  • Ramesh on August 27, 2012, 16:27 GMT

    Hi, my message got chopped. Most important, Laxman's criicket was the cricket of what in Hyderbad we called "tameez", Shukriya, VVS

  • Ramesh on August 27, 2012, 14:09 GMT

    Harsha, you captured it. For a generation who never saw Hyderabad cricket at it's best, in the'70s, you have provided the link, for Laxman played the cricket that Hyderabad once stood for. As Mumbai's was known for it's hard-nosed professional approach to the game, so Hyderabad was known for its emphasis on elegance and style, seemingly understated, refined, but in fact "in your face" arrogantly amateur. I was fortunate in my youth to play with ML Jaismha, Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig. Pataudi and Baig learned much of their cricket elsewhere, but at heart their cricket was as Hyderabadi as was possible. With their retirement, Something special passed from cricket in the view of many of us, though Azhar was exquisite in his touch, to all appearances a Hyderabad cricketer. Laxman brought back that Something. Perhaps, he was not the classical stylist that Jai was. But, like Jai's, his batsmaship was beautiful, his cricket the cricket of discretion and manners, or as we say in Hyderabad,

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2012, 10:04 GMT

    Typical scenario when VVS used to come for bat is 4 wickets down and India had to survive last one and half day of test to draw the match. He always gave hope to millions of spectators in such dire straits, that's the kind of reputation he had earned. Well written tribute by Harsha to great test batsman.

  • Balaji on August 26, 2012, 4:44 GMT

    Nice tribute to Laxman. You have touched upon the romance between Hyderabad batsmen and the Eden Gardens. Sadly the romance has come to an end, with no Hyderabad batsman ready to take over. I thought Ambati Rayudu would take over, but I feel it is not to be. Personally talking about Laxman, I thought he was the Manna Dey of Indian cricket.

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2012, 19:20 GMT

    great article from a fellow hyderabadi,,,,,,,,,,his batting was poetry in motion, the green fields were his canvas for putting the elegant poetry on it.............a true gentleman................i think we will not see euch display for some years to come................first it was vishwabath and then came azhar and finally vvs.......

  • Rahul on August 25, 2012, 18:48 GMT

    To those who r taking Imran and all I would say that Sachin has more experience than Imran or any other cricketer at international level so he is best to decide abt retirement

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