The secret of Laxman's steel: Hyderabad
"Yes, yes I follow them very closely. I follow them so closely I exchange messages with one of the coaches every half an hour and check how they are doing. Even now I know we are around 260 for 6, and we bowled them out for 147."
VVS Laxman is aware of events in Goa, even as he works on his fitness at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Laxman is already preparing for the Australia tour, slowly starting to visualise the challenge, the Australia bowlers, the crowds that adore him there. An eye, though, always remains on how Hyderabad are doing in the Ranji Trophy. "I follow Hyderabad cricket, and I am very passionate about it," he says. "It's unfortunate I don't play for them that often but I really think a lot about Hyderabad cricket."
Laxman owes Hyderabad cricket a lot, and vice versa. It is not just the supple wrists he has inherited. He says he learned to play well under pressure because of his early days in Hyderabad. He was their main batsman when Mohammad Azharuddin was away on India duty, and he says he learned to be responsible for the team. Hyderabad, in turn, gave him seniors he could look up to, and local competition he could relish.
Because of the Australia tour and the BCCI's decision to send the Test specialists there early, Laxman can't play for his home side this year, but the phone rarely stops buzzing when Ranji matches are on. The past few years have not been an easy time to be a Hyderabad supporter. Last November, Laxman helped save a Test with a second-innings 92 after India had been 15 for 5; three days before that Test began, Hyderabad were bowled out for 21, the lowest-ever Ranji Trophy score. This November he helped India win the Delhi Test against West Indies with 58 not out in the second innings, only to watch Hyderabad fold for 54 against Maharashtra the next day.
Laxman is positive while talking about Hyderabad's match against Goa, which they eventually won on the third day. But Goa is cricketing backwaters well and proper, and that succeeding against Goa, and Assam before that, makes Laxman feel the state is doing "much better", says all that needs to be said of the depths Hyderabad cricket has plumbed. Two years ago they were relegated to the Plate League for the first time, and they seemed to have built themselves a home there with the dismal performance last year.
The Indian Cricket League had caused disruption - Hyderabad were one of the most-affected sides in terms of the number and quality of players lost to the rebel Twenty20 tournament - but Laxman sees deeper problems with Hyderabad cricket. "Even after the ICL players came back, we have been doing well only in patches," he says. "I feel that the quality of cricket while I was growing up was very high in Hyderabad. This is something that has to be addressed. The quality of league cricket has deteriorated to an extent where a lot of teams give walkovers, and they don't even turn up for matches."
The administration dropped the ball too, failing to retain the talented Ambati Rayudu, who went to play for Baroda after the 2009-10 season, something Laxman dubs "a huge loss; [Rayudu is] one of the most promising and talented cricketers in our country".
However, Laxman, ever the optimist, sees some positives this year, at least at the top level, despite the 54 all out. The two big reasons for that, he says, are the new coach - Sunil Joshi, the former India spinner - and the identification of a group of young fast bowlers.
"It's much better than two years ago," Laxman says. "The cricketers playing now are all young and eager to learn. Potentially, they could be very good players in the years to come. I am very impressed with the way Sunil Joshi has been coaching the side. He has done a fabulous job in terms of developing a bond within the team, and creating a positive atmosphere and environment for the players to excel in.
"That's very important. When the team is going through a tough period, it is very good to create an environment in which everyone can relax and concentrate on doing well instead of adding excessive pressure. If you do that, they will go into their shell. I am sure things will only improve."
A day after Laxman said that, Hyderabad made their second step towards recovery. They had followed up their innings defeat against Maharashtra with an innings win against Assam, and topped it up with one against Goa. "I was very impressed with how he [Joshi] reacted after we were bowled out for 54 against Maharashtra," Laxman says. "Still he maintained the positive attitude within the team. It was very critical for the team to bounce back, which they did against Assam. After being beaten by an innings and getting bowled out for 54, going into the next match and winning by an innings was a huge improvement. That showed a lot of character within the team. There are a lot of positive signs for Hyderabad cricket."
The young bowling unit has caught Laxman's eye. "[Earlier] we didn't have enough talent as far as the bowling is concerned," he says. "Even though our batting is strong on paper, we haven't been able to convert that into strong performances. Now we have a young group of fast bowlers who have been identified and also some young spinners. All these guys are performing. It's just a matter of time before we come back to the position we were in three or four years ago."
With one league match to go, Hyderabad are in the top two in their group in the Plate League. Almost assured of a spot in the Plate semi-finals, they are now one good match short of making it back to the Elite League. More importantly, if they can win the Plate semi-final, they will get to play the main knockouts too. In that case, Joshi, or one of the other coaches, will run a high ISD bill. Someone in Australia will be pretty interested in half-hourly updates.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo