Laxman turns corner with hundred
For three years, following the Test match that irrevocably changed his life and the history of Indian cricket, VVS Laxman was considered one of the world's best batsmen. After caressing a sublime 178 at Sydney in January 2004, making the great Sachin Tendulkar appear pedestrian at times, Adam Gilchrist expressed the feelings of many when he said: "Every time he plays against us, he comes up with something special, and the next thing we read after the series is that he's been dropped. It leaves me completely bewildered."
Gilchrist was referring to Laxman's omission from the World Cup squad in 2003, a decision that devastated him and deflated much of the confidence he had imbibed since that Kolkata epic. But while his one-day career has kept blowing in the wind, there was nothing ephemeral about Laxman's value to the Test side. In a 34-month period which began and ended with Tests against the finest side to step on to a modern-day cricket field, Laxman aggregated 2594 runs at 63.26 from 30 Tests. Aggregated, though, is a crude word to use about a batsman whose strokeplay could at times transcend the classical; a wristy destroyer who earned the gushing admiration of Steve Waugh and his near-invincible side.
That 178 in Waugh's farewell - Laxman called it his tribute to the legend, and he wasn't taking the mickey - was to be a major fork in his road. Having proved that Eden Gardens, and a breathtaking 167 at Sydney four years previously, were far from being lone swallows of summer, Laxman proceeded to misplace his batting mojo. In 14 subsequent Tests, he eked out just 501 runs at 26.36, culminating in the abysmal defeat to Pakistan in Bangalore last April: he produced a bizarrely sedate innings of 79 with just the tail for company in that match.
While the figures were damning enough, what troubled his admirers was the lack of the fluency that has always marked him out as special. Apart from one glorious innings of 69 that earned India a consolation victory against the Australians at Mumbai, he was often scratchy and unsure - a tuneless beginner where once there had been a maestro. The footwork was often leaden and the impeccable placement a mere memory; lazy wafts straight to the fielders, and stumps splayed by full deliveries masked the resplendent images that his batting once provided.
With Sourav Ganguly enduring a similarly horrendous patch, India's middle order suddenly lost the aura that had led David Frith and others to call it among the finest to visit Australian shores. And after Mohammad Kaif showed definite signs of being ready for Test cricket against a rampant Australian side, each subsequent Laxman-lapse played into the hands of those Philistines who set little store by beauty, humility or grace.
A century today against such an enfeebled Zimbabwe side is certainly no indicator that the good times are here to stay, but there were enough vignettes in the post-tea session to suggest the turning of a corner. In an interview after that delicate dissection job at Sydney, Laxman had talked of how his driving was a fair barometer of his form. "I love the straight drive," he said. "That's when I feel that I'm in total control, when I play it well."
There was one such stroke today, preceded by a couple of peachy drives through the covers. He then bisected two men in the cover region to get to three figures, and as Sunil Gavaskar suggested on air, it would have made little difference if Tatenda Taibu had stationed all 11 there. The leitmotif of Laxman in full cry has always been his innate ability to thread the eye of the needle, and the final session where he cruised along at nearly a run-a-ball featured plenty of drives, cuts and deflections into wide open spaces.
Having taken 105 balls and endured a few uncomfortable moments on his way to 50, he was a man transformed after tea, perhaps inspired by a gorgeous innings from Rahul Dravid at the other end - an effort marred only by an uncharacteristically sloppy dismissal. The 130-run partnership reprised some of Indian cricket's most unforgettable moments, though the quality of opposition wasn't quite the same.
Blessing Mahwire toiled hard and came up with a couple of splendid deliveries but on a placid pitch, Heath Streak and cohorts would struggle to bowl out even a mid-rung Ranji Trophy side. That shouldn't concern Laxman unduly though. Finding tasty vegetarian fare in Bulawayo might continue to be a struggle, but in the meantime, he has given his detractors plenty to chew on. Class is, after all, no castle in the sand.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo