December 2001: Features

Amazing grace

The smallish crowd at Nagpur had eaten their oranges, patted their stomachs and been lulled by over after error-prone over of Irani Trophy cricket into a Sunday snooze. They had only snuck in a couple of winks when VVS Laxman, returning from two months of rehabilitation after knee surgery, fell upon their weary senses like rose-scented dew. With a heady swirl he took his first ball from off stump and sent it purring to midwicket, and then, with helicopter wrists, cut the second with a sound like an earthen pot cracking open on Janmashtami, explosion of colour and all. Ten minutes and another delectable four later he was out - another promise betrayed by impetuosity. It captured Laxman's best, and his worst, in the stark space of 14 balls - lordly and utterly fragile, a peacock who'd end his dance before the rain stopped.

In the evening he celebrated the comeback four with a smile so broad the ends threatened to kiss at the back of his head. "I was confident, but really, I never thought I'd hit the first two balls for four. Did it look reckless when I got out?" On the bed, next to a still-wet towel, a mobile phone beeped with an SMS message. In the far corner, a portable all-format Sony music system conscientiously transferred music from Compact Discs onto Mini Discs. "It's more convenient - smaller and doesn't get scratched." In the CaseLogic beside the player, Rudaali, Bacardi Blast Vol I and Best of Amitabh Bachchan subsisted in unnatural harmony with one another. He doesn't drink but Sharaabi is among his favourite movies. He had watched Lagaan in Sri Lanka, Dil Chahta Hai in Sydney. If he bats easier than Sunday morning, this Laxman, he hangs even more so.

He is an unfussy, god-fearing man. Simple - not behind-the-times simple or simpleton-simple; more, I'll-have-what-you're-having-simple. A man who would, as a matter of well-brought-up-habit, fold a piece of cloth that our photographer had sellotaped behind his head for a backdrop, as he returned it. Who'd phone if he said he would. Who'd have a glowing word for every team-mate, and even a nice one for the selectors. He was born to bat, but it doesn't make him a better man than you or I.

Dr Laxman, I presume ...
Every member of Laxman's family is a doctor - except the engineers. In keeping with the Great Indian Dream, he should've been arm-twisted into that medical degree, packaged off to the USA for the masters, and by now, married. "Luckily, my parents never pressured me; they emphasised that it doesn't matter what profession you take, so long as you succeed. I really appreciate the independence because I've seen so many of my friends who were equally - or maybe even more - talented than myself, whose parents forced them to take up engineering or medicine. They are happy now, but after seeing me play for India they might feel that 'had I continued, who knows ...'"

Cricket had come second to studies since the days when he'd rise with the sun to watch Benson & Hedges one-day action from Australia, and go to bed after hours of sweaty tennis-ball cricket in the apartment complex - under floodlights on Shiv Ratri or Dassera - that was tucked away, appropriately, behind the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium in Hyderabad. At the Little Flower high school, a five-minute walk from home, he'd open the bowling with outswingers and practice batting on a strip of cement, but his best score was 98 out of 100 in Science at the tenth standard Board exams (the 61 in Telugu, alas, dragged his average down to 83). Call him geeky, but he bought his books and sat down to prepare for the medical entrance exams in two years' time. "I attended college sincerely for the first month. I had already started preparing for the entrance exams. But after that I got so many opportunities to play matches... I just had to play them."

When the exam dates were announced, they clashed with those for an under-19 camp in Bangalore and it was time to decide. "My uncle was instrumental in me taking the decision. He was the one who spotted talent in me as a kid when my brother and I went to our grandmother's house every Sunday. It was only a 20-day training camp, but at that point of time it was everything."

It was an inspired decision, but it came with a clause. "If I was not going to play for India by the time I was 22 or 23, I would go back and study medicine. Basically, I gave myself five years."

To open or not to open?
By the winter of 1996, Laxman had kept his date with himself. He was in Patiala, playing for the Board President's XI against the Australians when he got a call-up for the one-off Test at Delhi. He didn't play the match but that was when he knew he could consign Gray's Anatomy to the dusty realms of the attic.

A month later, Sourav Ganguly pulled up injured, and Laxman batted at No. 6 and scored a half-century on debut against South Africa at Ahmedabad. He remembers, with a warm twinkle, the 56-run eighth-wicket partnership with Anil Kumble in the second innings that ensured a half-decent target, and Javagal Srinath's subsequent dream spell that won the match. "Scoring a fifty on debut, and the team also winning. What more can one ask for?"

At Cape Town, a few weeks later, he watched Azhar and Tendulkar conjure up 222 of the most free-spirited runs in modern cricket. "It was the best display of batting I had seen. It was my first experience of watching something so fascinating up close. Even the opposition was applauding ... Wherever we went after that, people would come up to congratulate Sachin and Azhar." India lost that series, but Laxman's cricket education was slowly taking off. "It was a great learning experience... that tour taught me a lot... It showed me what international cricket was all about."

It had arrived finally, the blustery life in the big league, and Laxman found it could be as cruel as it was wonderful. It took him to the West Indies, where he opened the innings uncomplainingly and finished with two Test fifties. And it saw him getting dropped right after. A strange three years then began to unravel ahead of him. He had unfailingly scored runs for Hyderabad and captained Rest of India in Irani Trophies. He had missed out on the easy series - Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Zimbabwe - and was sent on all the hard ones - Australia, South Africa, West Indies. "Just a coincidence."

It wasn't all a coincidence - he was being made to fill in India's least wanted position against his wishes. "Never in my life - except during under-13 and under-15 for Hyderabad - had I opened the batting. Never. But they picked me as an opener for the West Indian tour and I believed that you had to bat wherever the team requires you to - it's your duty, so I did it.

"Things were just going on. When I played for Hyderabad, I sometimes batted at No. 3, sometimes opened. I was getting runs at the domestic level but in Tests, I was getting to 25 or 30, but not able to capitalise. I was trying my best... I was opening for the team, even though it didn't come naturally to me."

As a result, he'd be in one day, out the next and there was still no place available between Nos. 3 and 6 in the Indian team. But he managed to stay clear of frustration. "Playing for India is such a dream for so many young children and when I got that opportunity, I realised that it was God's gift to me. I was ready to work hard, really hard, to come back into the team and, once given an opportunity, to prove myself."

With a mixture of faith, instinct and cold analysis - a word he uses in conversation more than the average Hyderabadi programmer - he decided that he'd stick to doing what he does best and make it work. "The mindset for an opener is totally different from a No. 3. I don't know why, but it is. There have been occasions when I have played at No. 3 for Hyderabad and walked out in the first over itself. But it's totally different ... I promise you. I can't even explain it.

"I was recently reading a book by Mark Taylor. Mark Waugh started off his first-class career as an opener, but Taylor never felt that Waugh was opener material - in Tests. Opening in the one-day game is one thing - in Tests, it's totally another. And I completely agree. The turning point came when I was dropped after the first Test against South Africa at Bombay. I decided then that I would never ever open again even if it meant sitting out." Later that year, he declined Ganguly's offer to open the innings and watched as Shiv Sunder Das made his debut in the Dhaka haze and then clinched the spot with a century in the following series against Zimbabwe.

281
In early 2001, the Australians came to India. They Who Finished Test Matches Before They Had Begun. They had rattled up 15 straight wins, this dizzily gifted bunch, three of them - numbers five to seven - against India. In the last of those, at Sydney, Laxman was hit on the helmet by Glenn McGrath early on - "Not really a wake-up call; you expect it in international cricket" - and then proceeded to stroke one of the all-time memorable overseas centuries by an Indian, ending with 167 out of 261. The next highest score was Ganguly with 29, followed by extras on 25, and India lost the match by an innings and 141 runs, the biggest defeat of the tour. It had been that sort of a series: "We never clicked all at once. Had I got that 167 in the first Test, the series would have been completely different."

Fourteen months on, in Mumbai, overpowering centuries from Matt Hayden and Adam Gilchrist finished India by the third morning. It had been a familiar, under-par, over-Tendulkar-reliant performance; the press conference had resembled a funeral and the nation had taken to flaying their over-idolised, overpaid heroes as they flew to Kolkata.

"We had actually prepared really well for the Australian series, starting with a brilliant four-day camp at Chennai. We watched a lot of cassettes, analysed every player's strengths and weaknesses. We were committed to win. But Hayden and Gilchrist played those amazing knocks and just took over the match. It would be very unfair to say that the bowlers didn't bowl well... the way they batted nobody could have done anything. The way people were writing us off was disappointing."

Kolkata, for the first two days, was the same story. In the city where children call him 'Steve Uncle', Waugh made his 25th Test hundred to take Australia to 445. In reply, India were 128 for 8 at stumps on the second day, Laxman was on 26, his old Hyderabad mate, Venkatapathy Raju, rolled out of the mothballs, on 3. More knives had been sharpened for Ganguly and his men; housewives and taxi-drivers alike had bemoaned the team's lack of guts, and in college circles it had almost become hip to back sexy Australia. At the Taj Bengal that night, the Indian cricket team contemplated what lay in store.

"John Wright called me to his room that evening and told me about the responsibility I had on my shoulders. Next, Chetan Chauhan, our manager, who had really been inspirational throughout the series, called both Raju and me to his room. He fired us up. Our basic feeling was - let's just go in and hang in there as long as we can, get as many runs as possible."

Raju went early in the morning, and after adding 42 runs with Venkatesh Prasad for the last wicket, ("Laxman, you don't worry, I'll be hanging around...just play your normal game," Prasad encouraged during his near-hour-long vigil.) he was given out caught behind for 59 when the ball had actually gone off the wrist. India still trailed by 274 runs and Steve Waugh did the un-Australian thing and made them follow on.

"I walked into the dressing room and I was about to remove my pads when the captain and the coach said not to remove them because I had been promoted to no. 3 (from no. 6). I just sat there, with my pads still on from the first innings, and just concentrated on the game. The first innings had given me a lot of confidence and being pushed up to no. 3 gave me that extra boost. But I knew I had to start from zero." Das and Ramesh had taken the score to 52 when he went in. "All I wanted to do was play each ball on its merit."

By the end of the third day, Laxman had reached 109*, his second Test century, his second against Australia. Batting with him, on 7, was Dravid, who had consented to swap batting places with Laxman. India had done okay, but they needed 20 more runs to even make Australia bat again. It was the day before the ides of March; exactly two years since Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams had batted all day at Sabina Park to set up a Test win in Steve Waugh's first series as captain. Laxman and Dravid, of course, didn't know that.

"We didn't have any idea about any records or statistics. Honestly, neither Rahul or I ever expected such a turnaround. There were no long-term goals. We took it over by over, then session by session."

It was the roller-coaster ride of the new millennium and Laxman carried Dravid with him. "I felt that the fourth day morning, with the second new ball, was a very crucial phase. Once we got through that, we felt 'OK, we can do this.' By tea, both of us were really tired and we just kept egging one another on, saying, 'This is the time to be tough. One more over, keep going...' When they got Ricky Ponting and Matt Hayden on to bowl we thought that they were under real pressure. But knowing these Australians, you give them one chance and they can turn around the match."

They were feeding off everything they could - each other, the team, the 100,000 at the ground. "When we were tired, the substitutes - Ashish, Sarandeep and Hemang - would run on with water and shout 'you've got to do it for the team'... really pumping us up. When we went at lunch or tea, everyone would gather around us. The crowd. They were unbelievable. The way they encouraged each and every boundary was just unbelievable - they were slowly getting filled with hope. I have never, ever, heard noise like that.

"That night, the team went to Sourav's house for dinner. Gavaskar left a few messages and that delighted me. At the hotel, we went to the manager's room and cut a cake and even Sachin said that seeing us he himself was so motivated. Everyone was just so... involved."

There'd been enough to revive the spirit of the nation, but the match was yet to be won. "By tea on the last day they were in a comfortable position and Steve was still there. The moment we got him out, and then Sachin bowled that magic spell and got Gilchrist - that's when we realized that it was an opportunity to make history. But then Kasper and Gillespie put on that small partnership and we became anxious again. When McGrath got out, My God!, everyone was so excited. I mean, words cannot describe that feeling. It was something like a dream, a dream Test. And we were part of the dream."

Did he know what he had done, this Laxman? Did he know just how, with one timeless, flawless, even ruthless, epic he had a billion people shrug off, for the moment, earthquakes and scams? Did he realise just what it had taken to end the greatest-ever winning streak? Did he know, statistically, how many times over he had mastered a bowling line-up that should have taken a wicket every 25.65 runs, or 55.58 balls? Did he know how beautiful he had been while doing it all?

With a window-pane-shattering smile he recalls a moment that he is unlikely to ever forget. "We flew to Chennai that night and everyone in the plane started clapping. It was great, because the Australians were right next to us and everyone was clapping and saying 'well done India, we're proud of you...(laughs). People say it is a religion here, you know, it IS a religion. I was so, so proud to be in the Indian team."

Life after...
281 seems a lifetime ago. There was Chennai next, and India's greatest series triumph. And there were expectations that he hasn't entirely lived up to. His big two had come against the best bowling in the world but they had also come with his place on the line. His postcard-perfect 30s thereafter, typically ended by an airy waft that meandered gracefully for a catch, came across as rigourless exercises in self-indulgence. Someone famously said that a man can care without appearing to. Laxman will tell you that he's been doing most things right, but for hitting a bad ball straight to the fielder on the full. Endearing as the confession may be, it's an indictment of a batsman who must learn to temper beauty with effectiveness.

He gives the impression of a man determined not to treat 281 like it was one last fling on earth but likes interviews because they let him relive the best times. His is the glow of a quiet optimist that every dressing room could use - a big brother who's not quite big enough still.

He believes this Indian team can climb very high. They are young, talented and keen to give back. "We can mouth off too... though I believe you can have a quiet strength." There's Ganguly who, he says, pulls them up on the field and stuffs them with confidence off it. There's Sehwag - "really talented", Harbhajan - "lovely guy, very hard-working", Rahul - "a total team man"; Sachin is Sachin. And there are John Wright and Andrew Leipus whose "incredible work ethic" have made them such an integral part of the team.

And there's Laxman. Smart second slip, dreadful runner, eye-soothing tease, and, when the stars align themselves just right, drop-dead-gorgeous craftsman who can seduce even Indians into believing that there's more to batting than Tendulkar.

Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and author of Pundits from Pakistan