There were days when VVS Laxman gave the impression his art was no more than simple ease; it was probably the only deceptive thing about him. Everything else, the quality of his batting, the honesty of his statements, the warmth of his friendship, possessed such deep integrity that only a sad cynic might doubt its presence.
For India supporters the best examples of Laxman's cricketing skills were perhaps his first two Test centuries: the 167 against Australia at the SCG in January 2000 and then his 281 against the same opponents at Kolkata 14 months later. As any fule kno the latter innings was played in perhaps the greatest Test of all; indeed, archive footage of India's victory at Eden Gardens after following on 274 runs behind offer balm to lovers of the game in these strange cricketless months.
England fans were less fortunate. None of Laxman's 17 Test centuries were made against their side and even the barmiest member of the army regretted the fact. Loyal Lancashire followers, on the other hand, were rather luckier: they saw Laxman make six hundreds in the County Championship. And do you recall that 55 not out at Blackpool…?
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September 7, 2007: The second day of Lancashire's home match against Durham at Stanley Park. The pitch being used for the game is difficult, its devilry caused by small, semi-detached chunks of soil on the surface which move every time the ball hits them. The results are lateral movement and inconsistent bounce, features which both Glen Chapple and Ottis Gibson are cheerfully exploiting. By teatime on Friday it seems plain the game is unlikely to stretch into a third day, a fact which grieves Blackpool's hoteliers and publicans. Shortly after the resumption Lancashire are 44 for 3 and their victory target of 169 seems more distant than the top of the famous Tower. At which point Laxman strides out to join Stuart Law. It is his third first-class match for Lancashire…
Across the decades overseas players in English county cricket have come in all shapes and many sizes. Some have arrived looking to earn all they could; others to learn all they could. The latter group have been especially keen to understand conditions they have rarely encountered before. Put even more simply, some look to take while others - the majority, I believe - look to give as much as possible to their counties while making a decent living. It did not take Lancashire's players long to find out to which camp "Laxy" belonged.
"When an overseas player arrives, they command your respect for what they have done in the game but you wait to see how they go about their business," says Luke Sutton, who made 66 not out in the first innings of that game at Blackpool. "VVS was everything you would imagine. He was brilliant in training, assiduous in practice and very happy to share what he knew. He wasn't the most athletic guy but he made up for that with his enthusiasm and cricketing intelligence."
"He would be right up there, both as a player and a person," adds Mark Chilton, who was Laxman's captain in the first of his two seasons at Emirates Old Trafford. "I hold him in very high regard. He was an outstanding player, one of the best with whom I played. But more than anything he was an outstanding person."
"Laxman is up there with anyone I played with. When you batted with him, he made you better because he helped, encouraged and shared information" Luke Sutton
What is slightly remarkable - at least, until you have spent any time in Laxman's company - is that Sutton and Chilton's judgements were made on the strength of little more than a full season's cricket with VVS, who played just 16 Championship games in his two spells for Lancashire in 2007 and 2009. During the second of these he was capped, which is almost always a great occasion for any English cricketer born in their county but has not always been so significant a moment for a few overseas players. (Indeed, one or two would probably have preferred to get the money spent on the cap.) Laxman, by absolute contrast, understood very clearly the honour he was being paid in front of the famous pavilion. "He had some very strong values," Chilton says. "He understood the importance of playing for Lancashire and respected our environment. He wanted to be a good ambassador for the club."
However, neither an abundance of talent nor a sense of your county's ethos will help a player if he does not possess the courage to face fast bowling on a pig of a pitch. "Ticker", the pros call it...
Gibson is steaming in from the Parched Peas End at Blackpool. The ball is still flying around but Laxman is getting inside the line and wristing it through midwicket or driving on the up through the covers; at the other end Stuart Law is displaying equal courage, maybe even more, given that he is carrying a painful finger injury. "It burst like a sausage on the barbie," he will say later. Durham's other new-ball bowler is Liam Plunkett and it is easy to see that on other days Lancashire could have been rolled. But Laxman and Law are facing down the visiting bowlers and the balance of the game is shifting decisively. Batting appears almost straightforward until another ball rears off a length.
"In those situations you needed great skill but you also had to be brave because you couldn't trust the bounce and the ball was going through the surface," says Sutton, who had put on 43 with Laxman in the first innings. "You hear that Indian players might struggle in such conditions but VVS showed amazing application and supreme ability. You particularly noticed his balance at the crease. The ability to transfer your weight, both forward and back, is a skill of top batsmen which often goes unnoticed, especially in difficult conditions. There is a temptation to sit back but his balance was so good he could play off either foot. And when you lose any trust in the bounce, you have to second-guess everything. You have to have a strong mind to maintain your technique and play that well at times like that.
"But Laxman is up there with anyone I played with. When you batted with him, he made you bat better because he helped you and encouraged you and shared information. It was very much like he was in the trenches with you. This guy had an abundance of talent yet he had the humility to be simply your team-mate."
That humility extended into the press box. Rather than taking refuge in end-of-day clichés - and who blames a player for doing so? - Laxman listened intently to questions and answered each of them thoughtfully. Once he even gave us an insight into his own development as a cricketer who had chosen sport instead of the medical career once marked out for him. We had been asking him about the Test prospects of a young Lancashire player.
"The first thing you must do is knock on the door," he said. "If there is no answer you knock more loudly." Suddenly Laxman's voice became a little louder and more insistent, an unusual occurrence for this mildest of men. "But then if there is still no answer, you smash the door down and demand to be let in."
Lancashire win the game at Blackpool by seven wickets, Law finishing unbeaten on 82. His unbroken partnership with Laxman is worth 125 runs; the next highest stand in the match is worth 69 and that included a palpably unhinged 41 from Sajid Mahmood. It is a golden late summer evening as the press write up their reports and the freelancers come to terms with the loss of two days' work. Suddenly, a colleague turns to me in the press tent, which is now a wreckage of coffee-cups and cold chips. "Do you think I'm okay to call Laxman and Law 'brilliant'?" he asks. I reply that he is fine to do exactly that.
It is strange to realise that game at Blackpool took place nearly 13 summers ago and stranger still that it is eight years since Laxman announced his retirement. Then one talks to his former colleagues and realises their memories are as fresh and generous and unforced as one's own. Laxman is 45 now and one of Indian cricket's mature statesmen. If the game has any sense it will make use of his wisdom and intelligence He has recently written his autobiography 281 and Beyond, a title which has a faintly Star Trek feel to it. But then Laxman has a life to live and one expects he has fresh ambitions to realise. Next March it will be two decades since that innings at Kolkata.
There was far more to VVS Laxman's batting than he revealed that evening at Blackpool. One could write a separate piece about his skill against spin bowling and how he made something that was plainly very difficult look terribly easy. ("It was quite demoralising bowling to him in the Lancashire nets," Gary Keedy says. "You would pitch one on middle and leg that was turning square and he would just step back and whack you through midwicket with a flick of those famous wrists. You'd be thinking: 'Yeah, okay then. I'll have to produce something a bit different, here.'")
It is not my place or purpose to give VVS Laxman his position in a hierarchy of Indian batsmen which, in living memory, includes Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli. All the same I will risk one gentle judgement in these troubled times: if Rahul Dravid is still the man many Indian supporters would choose to bat for their lives, VVS Laxman may well be the player they would select to remind them those lives were so abundantly worth living.
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