The way VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh ran between the wickets today perfectly captured the differences in their personas, and their knocks. As ever, Laxman never seemed to run, but strolled calmly in his anachronistic way. Harbhajan was different; he often ambled three-quarters of the way down the pitch, before rushing at the end to barely beat the throw. Occasionally, he just walked across. On one instance, he even back-pedalled a few steps on the second run. It suggested a touch of insouciance, a pinch of foolhardiness, a smidgen of showmanship, and a streak of ballsiness. It's what makes Harbhajan the player he is, and all those attributes were reflected in his batting.
Trouble arrived as early as the third over of the day. He drove to the left of Daniel Vettori at mid-off and set off for a single. Had the throw been accurate (it bounced over the stumps), that would have been the end of Harbhajan. It would be the quickest he would run for a single all day. The next Harbhajan moment came an over later: there was a gap of about seven feet between short cover and short extra cover, and he smacked a length delivery from Chris Martin right between them. Was he aiming for that gap or was it a purely instinctive reaction? Was it ballsy or was it foolhardy? Perhaps in his mind there was no choice at that moment. He simply had to play it.
Soon after he played a cheeky reverse sweep off Jeetan Patel, a shot he later described with great delight, perfectly capturing his spirit: "He was bowling outside off and I thought if there is an opportunity I will reverse sweep. I made up my mind to reverse sweep that ball. If I had missed that ball I would have been out," he said with a laugh. "And that would have been a mess. Glad I connected it."
At the same time, there seemed to be an awareness of the risks he was taking somewhere in the background in his psyche, even if it wasn't strong enough to overpower his adventurous instinct. "I want to promise to myself that I should not play a reverse sweep in Test cricket again because I have got out playing that shot many times."
Still blocking is not his style. "I know that I will get out if I keep defending," he said. Of course, that was followed by, "I know if I can play straight, I can score runs; there is no need for fancy shots." This is from the same man who played the reverse sweep, the hoick over midwicket, the walk-down-the-pitch-and-smack shots, and the lofted hits over long-on fielders. But that's Harbhajan the batsman for you.
Rewind to the first hour of play. Harbhajan walked down the track and swiped Martin from outside off to the leg side. Laxman said something from the other end. At that stage, India were 135 for 6, several runs, and at least an hour's batting, short of safety. The very next ball he walked out again, got down on his knee, and dragged a delivery from well outside off to the leg side. This time Laxman walked the full length of the pitch to have a chat with his partner, and Harbhajan nodded. Planned or not, the next delivery from Martin was perfect: it was short and slightly wide. A straighter delivery might not have raised temptation in the context of what had already happened in that over. Harbhajan, of course, flashed it over the head of gully, and received a pat on the back from his senior partner.
On the other hand, what can be said about Laxman that's not been said before? It is perhaps easier to define Laxman through the images of other batsmen in crisis situations. If it was Rahul Dravid, you would have seen him fighting; the hands that hold the bat seem to get tighter, the face-muscles tighten, the intensity escalates, self-admonishments increase, and you can feel the battle he is waging. The whole match situation comes alive in your mind when he bats. You can feel the gravitas.
If it was Sachin Tendulkar batting in crisis, you can feel his effort in trying to portray that there is no pressure out there and that he is in control. The signature self-nod after playing a shot is done more often and he would look at the bowler or turn away to the leg side with an expressionless face when he is beaten. You can feel him trying to be in total control. You can sense the pressure he puts himself on.
With Brian Lara, you just gasped and watched him trying to impose himself. You could feel his fierce desire to win the game on his own. Lara was, and knew he was, the centre of the universe in such situations, and that his team would live or die with him. And he let everyone know it. As he launched into his awe-inspiring counter-attacks, the chats with his partners would increase, and he will look to get inspired by any verbals from the opposition. He was like a boxer priming himself for heavyweight contest. You couldn't take your eyes of him.
With Laxman, you almost don't see him. You see his partners bat more. Or so it seems. He flows like a becalmed river. The fabulous wristy shots come and go, the singles are always flowing, the gaps are found repeatedly, and his face is calm. There is the ball and his reaction to it. That's it. Or it appears. These crisis situations seem to help him balance his art with commerce which he, sometimes, tussles with during less-demanding times.
The best Laxman tribute came from the opposing captain. "Laxman just did what he always does," Vettori said "He scores runs."