September 1, 2012

The effortless artistry of VVS Laxman

When you watched him bat, there was a sense that you were witnessing the creation of something beautiful yet not inaccessible

When I watch old tapes from the '60s and the '70s, and on occasion from the '80s, I marvel at how celebrations at a hundred or a wicket have changed over the years. A batsman used to raise his bat, tip his cap, and then get back to business. A bowler often used to just run to his close catchers; why, in the '60s, at times, they mostly rolled back a forever-rolling -down sleeve and walked back.

When VVS Laxman got to a milestone, it was as if you were back to watching those tapes, except his smile was broader. He positively beamed, and then the politeness of the man took over. It was as if he wished to acknowledge every single soul present on the ground. Helmet off, hands and bat aloft, that broad smile one moment. A gentle tip of the bat in all directions, the next. It was all so utterly genuine. None of the hurly-burly of modern-day professional sport. A Laxman hundred didn't seem to be an event that demanded exclusive celebration. It was completely, unpretentiously inclusive.

Australian crowds stood up to applaud his innings in whole-hearted unison. Grandparents, grandkids in tow, instantly identified with him as if he belonged to their time. The seniors pulled the kids along to show them this Indian artist at work, perhaps even to tell them this was how the game was played in their youth. They seemed to appreciate his old-world charm, in a more complete sense at times than crowds anywhere else.

From the time Laxman walked out to bat in Australia, everything seemed in soft synchrony. His light, upright walk had an added spring in its step. The open, welcoming feel that the grounds there gave him just the right amount of space to perform. The bounce in the land's pitches left one last lingering thought of a leg-before behind. An artist was liberated. It was no coincidence perhaps that Australian crowds were therefore treated to his finest knocks.

From his easy walk to the crease to the habitual walk down the pitch to pat down a few imaginary loose bits of earth, he looked so different from everyone else on the field. Very rarely did a frown crease his forehead, never was there a gritting of teeth. His left glove briefly touched the top of his thigh pad, then lightly tugged at his nose. All the while, his wrists, loose and relaxed. He settled in his stance, a light tap at the crease and then there were two more. He didn't make any allowances it would seem for the rough and tumble of professional sport. He was like an artist who had effortlessly borrowed from cricket to create soft patterns that soothe the senses.

To the good-length ball he arched back, took it on the top of its bounce and then gently coaxed it through the covers. Thereabouts as a long sigh escaped you, his artistic sensibilities seemingly yearning for something different, the next ball identical in qualities of line and length would be almost stopped in its path and then with a flick of his wrists sent away rapidly through midwicket. The ball never left the ground. It seemed to never need to. It had played its part in creating lofty art.

Laxman's cricket is equal perhaps in the sheer viewing pleasure that it offers as Roger Federer's tennis. Roger's wrists have the same relaxed tone. In between points and as he waits to return serve, the way his hands are kept in light, relaxed readiness, Federer and Laxman, in and around his batting stance, are strikingly similar. You could be forgiven if you forgot the match situation and watched each stroke for its singular artistry.

In between points and as he waits to return serve, the way his hands are kept in light, relaxed readiness, Federer and Laxman, in and around his batting stance, are strikingly similar. You could be forgiven if you forgot the match situation and watched each stroke for its singular artistry

Watching Laxman bat around the turn of the millennium, the seemingly effortless artistry might have tempted you to get carried away and think things had always been thus. That very definitely wasn't the case.

His early opening stints had made him a diffident young man. There was a prayer on his lips almost every ball when India played Pakistan at the Kotla in 1998. There was that mercurial 167 at the SCG, but, there was just that.

A lot of us had cried ourselves hoarse for him to be played in the middle order. Selectorial whims had cast him in the Ranji King mould. Such moulds are rarely broken. But when they are, they carry with them powerful forces. Forces that can strengthen a man and humble his opponents.

How much Steve Waugh's defensive field placing helped him in that first innings in Kolkata we shall never know. It was the last few scoring strokes he made in that 59 that set the tone for that monumental second-innings knock. On such fine threads are cricketing histories woven. Somehow, in VVS's case, it seems particularly apt that this had been so.

For a day and a half, Laxman dominated the Australian attack like no one had in those times. For a day and a half, his expression never changed. That fourth day at the Eden Gardens, a surgeon's scalpel couldn't have been surer in method. Such was Laxman's use of his hands. Such artistry inspires. Rahul Dravid, who was having difficulty getting the ball off the square, finally blossomed. Suddenly, he was off-driving Glenn McGrath off the back foot. He had seen consummate ease at the other end. He was forced to look outward. Sometimes, that is good for men who dwell on matters a lot.

I often think this is why Dravid and Laxman made such a successful combination. Dravid, severe on himself, often judging himself by the most stringent of standards, putting the bad ball away in style while more often blunting the attack, allowed Laxman the freedom to exhibit his artistry. Laxman's ease of attacking play rubbed off on Dravid as their partnerships grew. The opposition, most notably the Australians under Waugh, quite often grew weary of this mix of flair and orthodoxy, needing to cross the fine line between attack and defence too many a time for their liking. It is inevitable that we wonder whether there will be another of Laxman's kind. Certainly, the times aren't exactly conducive to the forming of such personalities and the flowering of such wristy play.

Accordingly, it is all the more reason we pause and thank you, VVS, for the sublime entertainment, the broad smile, those enduring partnerships with Dravid, and perhaps more importantly, for subtle lessons in humility.

Krishna Kumar is a software architect in Bangalore who maintains that the best way to keep awake in meetings is by playing the Laxman air-cover drive

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