A West Indies tour is special. Nobody knows it better than VVS Laxman.
Last time, Laxman did not go there under the most ideal of circumstances. He was playing for India A, while the senior team was focused on the World Cup in South Africa.
And when he last toured West Indies with the senior side in 2001-02, he was still fighting off the image of a batsman capable of special deeds but one equally adept at underperforming. He had played a series-changing innings against Australia, and then almost out of habit, had an indifferent series against a much weaker Zimbabwe. Six fifties and one century later, he was as permanent a member of the Test side as Sachin Tendulkar. Now, just before his fourth visit to the Caribbean, he finds himself fighting for a place again. However, an injury to Tendulkar has made sure he will fit into India's five-batsman formula.
Ahead of one of the most important tours of his career, Laxman spoke to Cricinfo about painful experiences such as losing the Barbados Test in 1996-97, having to play under the pressure of proving himself throughout his career, being dropped for the World Cup, and more recently against England; and what he has been up to of late.
What have your experiences in the West Indies been like?
I have always enjoyed playing there. In 1997, I went as an opener. That was an awesome experience. As a child, you grow up listening to stories about the West Indies, the people, and the passion. When you actually experience it, you know how great it is to play there. Cricketers are actually respected there. Normal people, irrespective of what's happening in their lives, enjoy watching good cricket. It's always been one of the best places to tour.
What was the `A' tour experience like?
The `A' tour was a great experience. I was a little disappointed that I was not playing the World Cup, though. But, playing domestic cricket in West Indies was great. I think they have got good, talented players. It was disappointing to see the lack of infrastructure; the grounds were not too good. Still, the standard of players was decent. I hadn't expected them to be that good. Having just seven domestic teams adds up to the intensity they play the game with.
Have you been following the one-day games India have played so far?
Not really, because I have been training and have to get up early for practice. I have been watching the recordings, though. I had always felt that West Indies had a good bunch of cricketers. All they needed was guidance. They always play well at home. Probably because they know they can't lose in front of their passionate crowds. I believe they have good matchwinners. The way [Ramnaresh] Sarwan played was amazing. But, it would have been great to see India win the second one-dayer. Yuvraj got so close but could not finish it.
You talked about training. What routine are you following?
I am quite happy with the preparation I've had. I have had a mixture of drills: for batting and fitness. At the same time, I am relaxing also. There's a lot of matches, so I want high fitness levels. I am following Greg King's schedule, and also this sprint coach called Ramesh is helping me. He usually works with the Indian athletics team. He looked after the Indian hockey team that went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
What images do you remember from the 1996-97 tour of West Indies?
The first image is opening for India for the first time. I faced (Curtly) Ambrose, (Courtney) Walsh, Ian (Bishop), and (Franklyn) Rose, who was also bowling really well. I will always remember and treasure having played against these greats for the first time, and that too opening. I wouldn't say it was something I didn't like or feared. Ambrose and Walsh were not only great West Indian bowlers but all time greats. That series helped me mature. It was my second international series, but I had got injured in South Africa. So, this was my first full tour.
Which innings do you remember most from that tour?
The 60 that I got in Jamaica in the first Test was great. But the match I will never forget is the Barbados Test. We came so close but were not able to finish it off. I was the top-scorer with 19 runs. Another 20-30 runs and we would have won. I remember the wicket was up and down. So the guy who was settled should have carried on. I was really disappointed because I was playing really well and had gauged the wicket. In another hour's time the entire team had collapsed, and that hurt.
India haven't won in West Indies since 1971; how much does history play on your mind?
History plays a great role. Last time, in 2002, we came very close. Even in Australia, we were that close but couldn't win. In Pakistan also, we won a series after a long time. That's why I rate my innings in Trinidad highly. That knock had helped us win a Test match in West Indies for the first time after 1976. You feel satisfied when you are a part of something that has never been done before.
Against England, you were not a part of the playing XI. Then, Greg Chappell had said India will be going in with five batsmen only. Sachin Tendulkar not being fit in time for this tour made your selection easier. Were you relieved?
First of all I'd want Sachin to be on the tour. More than being cricketers, we are friends. He is like an elder brother to all of us. For more than personal reasons, I would want him because he is a huge influence on the team. He not only has experience, but the way he shares his experience with his team-mates is very special. Selection doesn't matter to me. Initially, for the first four-five years, it used to affect my mindset. Throughout my Test career, I have always been in up and down situations - where every innings, every series has been important to me. But since 2000, my mindset has changed. Because I have been batting in the middle order and also performing consistently. I now only think about things that I can control. I have to go out and get runs. Selection is not in my control.
Selection doesn't matter to me. Initially, for the first four-five years, it used to affect my mindset. But since 2000, my mindset has changed. Because I have been batting in the middle order and performing consistently. I now only think about things that I can control.
Ever felt insecure with the changing game plan?
I was never insecure when Chappell said they would be sticking with five bowlers. But, I was disappointed to miss out on playing at Mohali and Mumbai. After 2005 in Zimbabwe, I have been doing consistently. It definitely hurt being left out.
Do you need to tell yourself every night that you are still the match-winner you were?
There is no need to convince myself. I believe I can play a huge role in the team's success. I believe I have a lot of years left. I don't think too much about the past or the future. I believe I am a matchwinner. I don't doubt myself. I have done well in the past; there is no doubt that I can do well in the future. The biggest motivation is playing for the country. I am getting one more opportunity to play in the West Indies. My conscience says I have given my 100%. It's not easy when you are under that kind of pressure and scrutiny all the time. But with experience, I have become more mature. You want to enjoy the game; I think I will stop doing that if I start thinking about it too much. Past experiences have toughened me up; these things don't matter to me now. Mind you, it's easier said than done. But that's all I can do.
What did you do the night you were dropped?
It was disappointing. Because I had got a good ball first up at Nagpur - a reverse-swinging inswinger. I was looking forward to doing well at Mohali. It took some time for me to realise and for it to sink in that I wasn't going to play. I hadn't missed many Tests since 2000. But, you have to take it in your stride.
How much does reading help?
I spend half an hour to one hour everyday. This book (he has just been gifted The Greatest - Top 50 innings by Australian batsmen; 1877- 2004 by a well-wisher.) I will cherish reading on the long flight to the West Indies. Top 50 innings by Australian batsmen must be really inspiring. Reading about Kim Hughes making a century on a difficult track might just inspire me to play a similar kind of innings if I get a bad wicket.
Who were the Australian batsmen that influenced you?
Greg Chappell. As a child, I had his picture in my wardrobe. I loved his style, stance and elegance. Then, obviously, Steve Waugh. I have played against him and seen him when I wasn't playing against him. He is one of the gutsiest performers. He has played matchwinning knocks whenever his team required them. I have learnt a lot from Steve. Batting with the tail was something new to me, but he always trusted the tail. He would never refuse the singles.
You have an impressive record in West Indies. Anything special about the pitches?
The West Indian wickets are slow. Normally, I like much quicker wickets. Except for Jamaica and Barbados, they are slow. They might not suit my style but you have to adapt. Then again, their attack is based on fast bowling. Fast bowling gives me the drive or josh.
Last time around, we didn't see a normal Laxman. You played scratchy...
(He stops you at scratchy) I wouldn't use the word scratchy. They were not aggressive innings, though. I played with the tail and also in situations where the team required me to build up a long stand. If I usually take 80 balls to score a 50, I took 120 then.
You are an instinctive player. Do you think, of late, you have stopped backing your instinct that much?
Not really, it's just that with experience, you become more mature. It also depends on the kind of wicket you are playing on, and the type of situation. I wouldn't say I have stopped backing my instincts. You have to adapt. I scored a controlled century against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad because the wicket wasn't suited for stroke play. The situation demanded a mature innings.
As we discussed, you were not a part of the XI when India last played. You will be working to find a place for you. Where do you rate this series in terms of importance to your career?
Every tour is important. You dream of playing for your country. I am getting to go to the West Indies for the third time. Not many people get such chances. I will try and do the best.