Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo
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It was the end of day three. India had been bowled out for 305. And Virender Sehwag had perished to his second unwise shot in two days. Two days to go, a deficit of 267, a lot of time to be played out and no rain in sight. VVS Laxman was asked if India could save the Test. "Yeah definitely," was the matter-of-fact reply. Not even Sehwag could have made such a statement without sounding arrogant.
Laxman could afford to sound so optimistic after what he had done back in Kolkata 2000-01. There is such assurance and positivity about whatever Laxman does. Even when Ajantha Mendis was giving the Indian Fab Four perhaps the toughest time of their career, Laxman looked to use his wrists and whip Mendis through midwicket, no matter which way the ball turned. Even while struggling, he didn't look ungainly. Laxman was confident he could play that shot against the world's most unreadable bowler of the time.
Laxman was also asked about the kind of pressure Yuvraj Singh, who had struggled for 17 minutes for his first innings duck, was under. "He's getting ready for the opportunity that's [been] given to him. It's so unfortunate that after one bad innings you put pressure on him. He has done tremendously well in both forms of the game. He's an amazing talent who is potentially a match-winner and one of the best talents India has produced."
When Yuvraj came in today, India had managed a lead of 42. But there was still the third new ball and 35 overs to be negotiated. Yuvraj, looking circumspect at times, partnered Laxman through that and then played aggressively. All 35 overs weren't needed after all, because the pace at which Yuvraj and Laxman scored helped secure a draw well before the scheduled close.
At the end Yuvraj played out the final over, a maiden, before stumps were drawn, and hugged Laxman as India managed the great escape. Most of the hard work, though, had been done by the time Yuvraj came in to bat,. When Sachin Tendulkar got out after adding six to his overnight 58, Laxman came in with memories of the last-innings collapse still fresh and nerves still unsettled. But Laxman provided assurance.
He was slow yet positive. It took Laxman 11 deliveries to get off the mark, and 25 to hit his first boundary. Unlike Tendulkar, who had come out in an aggressive mode and scattered the field last night, Laxman was prepared to defend. But he ensured that he did not get bogged down. Every defensive shot came off the middle of the bat, a loud thud resounding in the mostly empty McLean Park. The field sets were good, blocking most of Laxman's scoring areas.
With Laxman not in a mood to attack, the New Zealand bowlers went all out to elicit the one shot which actually makes him look somewhat ungainly - the pull. From round the wicket, Iain O'Brien kept aiming at the rib cage and Laxman finally played a pull despite taking his eyes off the ball. That's when Laxman started to pull, taking two boundaries in two O'Brien overs. Shortly after lunch, he pulled Chris Martin to take India into the lead.
That was when the real Laxman emerged. The wrists started to work the magic again, delivering the promise that was unfulfilled in the first innings. When it seemed Laxman might have to drop anchor after Gambhir's dismissal, he actually moved up a gear, scoring 100 of his unbeaten 124 in boundaries alone, deflating New Zealand completely.
The shots reflected Laxman's style. The thinking was clear; when he wanted to hit he hit, when he wanted to defend he defended.
Rahul Dravid has spoken about the mental strength of Laxman, which is often masked by the beauty of his batsmanship. "When he walks in, whether you are batting in the middle or sitting in the pavilion and a wicket has fallen, he brings calm to the whole dressing room," Dravid said. It wasn't a surprise to see the Indian team happily playing football at the end of the fourth day's play, still a long way to go in saving the Test. Laxman was still to bat.