Calm Laxman defies spasms and past demons
They didn't scream madly as they do nowadays after winning a cricket match. They didn't run on to the field. They just walked out one by one, not a hint of surprise on their faces.
MS Dhoni walked out first, padded up and probably relieved he didn't have to bat. Then came the man who has perhaps enjoyed VVS Laxman's batting more than anyone else. Rahul Dravid couldn't stop smiling. He clapped all the way as he walked towards the middle where Laxman first shook hands with the umpire Simon Taufel and then walked towards Virender Sehwag, his runner, and Suresh Raina, his batting partner, both of whom hugged him. Then came Sachin Tendulkar, thankful that the job that he had started was finished. The slightest hint of incredulity came in the form of a mock-bow from M Vijay.
Laxman just smiled and thanked everyone, suggesting, as usual, that it was no big deal. That, though, is the effect his batting has on his team-mates. "Nothing calms you like Laxman," wrote Dravid when Laxman brought up a century of Test caps.
It was, in fact, a very big deal. While listening to Kishore Kumar in the dressing room, nursing the back spasms he had developed while fielding on the fourth day, he saw the nightwatchman Ishant Sharma get out, reducing India to 62 for 4, chasing 257 on a testing fifth-day pitch. Laxman knew he hadn't scored a century in Sri Lanka, or scored more than 74 in the fourth innings of a Test match. He knew of India's miserable record batting fourth. This before going out for perhaps his last innings in the country.
Soon, he saw Tendulkar play a nervous defensive shot to the on side, with four men ready to pounce on it. Tillakaratne Dilshan dropped one of the easier offerings any forward short leg could expect. Both the batsmen then took charge.
Suraj Randiv was bowling the spell of his life. From round the stumps he got sharp bounce and turn. Leg gully, forward short leg, and short midwicket waited. If you went over them, there were three other fielders on the on-side boundary. Randiv was accurate, landing everything on an imaginary penny on the pitch. He gave almost nothing to cut, or wide enough to drive through the off side. The plan was laid, the cover field was vacant. Laxman still kept flicking him through the on side. It was fascinating to watch, especially after Ishant had just flicked one straight to short midwicket.
All through his troublesome previous tour in 2008, Laxman kept doing the same to Ajantha Mendis, who was having the series of his life. Laxman didn't seem to pick the variations, but kept flicking, ending up with a better average than any of the middle-order batsmen. Still he kept finding ways to get out to Mendis, as he did it in the first innings here, making it seven dismissals to the bowler.
Laxman, though, trusted his wrists and kept playing the shot against Randiv, teasing the fielders, keeping it along the ground. When he hit uppishly, he missed the fielders. Despite that troublesome back, he still managed to bisect forward short leg and leg gully with the sweep. And he didn't abort the pull shot that consumed him in Galle.
A few scores were settled too. Off Mendis on a fifth-day pitch, he scored 39 runs off 44 balls. He might not still have read Mendis from the hand all the time, but any hint of a loose ball was punished. "I don't think I was struggling against him," he said of facing Mendis. "In all the innings I got out to him in different manner. It was not that I was getting out in the same fashion and [that he was] exposing my weak link. I didn't do anything different, I just played my natural game and to the merit of the ball."
Lasith Malinga, who had made Laxman look ungainly in Galle, went for 18 off 21. Two of Malinga's bouncers were pulled imperiously between fine leg and deep square leg, that too with a bad back.
As India started getting closer, the grit started giving way to grace. From jaw-clenching, the innings went to jaw-dropping. The wristy drive through extra cover, the flicks through the on side, and the leg glance took him closer to the hundred. In between, the odd ball jumped and there was the odd hiccup, like Tendulkar's departure immediately after he took a break to get treatment on his back.
"If you see, Sachin got out once I took the runner," Laxman said, as if blaming himself. "But I was in such pain that I thought the best decision in team's interest was to have a runner, instead of just giving away the wicket due to pain. Luckily, the partnership with Suresh Raina developed."
Laxman has his routines, like his shots, that he adamantly follows. At the end of every over, he taps his bat on the crease about a dozen times. Even when he had the runner, and finished the over at square leg, he would walk to the other crease and tap the bat in gently, holding it from the top of the handle. He did that 47 times today. Each time the bowler would start the over knowing his best chance of picking up a wicket was through the other batsman. And throughout those 47 overs, the dressing room knew the chase was in safe hands.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo