VVS Laxman: stylish and solid all at once
When VVS Laxman made 281 at Kolkata two years ago, little did he realise that he was building his own prison. From then on, he became trapped in his own stereotype - an artistic strokeplayer capable of constructing miracles. The Indian public, the Indian media, all viewed him through that prism. Nothing less than Very Very Special would do.
After Kolkata, Laxman played a key series-winning role at Chennai - 65 and 66 - before being consumed, for a while, by underachievement; and for much longer, by the perception of underachievement. Tours of Zimbabwe and South Africa, and then series against England and Zimbabwe, were marked by starts squandered, elegant cameos that hinted at a lustre never revealed. Had Laxman become a victim of his own success?
In the context of that pernicious stereotype, perhaps. But Laxman's artistry concealed what he had always implied when he had said that No. 3 was his favourite batting position, and what he had always demonstrated in domestic cricket: that he was a builder of innings, and was as capable of solidity as of beauty. The season before his comeback into the Indian team as a middle-order batsman - which led to Kolkata - illustrated this beautifully. He made eight Ranji Trophy centuries - still a record - which included his second Ranji Trophy triple-century, a feat still unmatched. After the 281, observers had cast him as McCabe to Tendulkar's Bradman, or Compton to Dravid's Hutton. But his run of scores in 1999-2000 was both Bradmanesque in volume and strokeplay, and Huttonesque in construction.
The fallow run after that Australian series led to his demotion down the order, where he batted, until the Ahmedabad Test, at No. 6. The incumbents at No. 3 and 4 were the greatest ever for India in those positions, and the captain wanted No. 5 for himself. Was there scope for Laxman to reach his potential so low in the order?
It is doubtful if Laxman asked himself that. Soft-spoken and known to be a team man to the core, Laxman, to paraphrase JFK, would not have worried about what his position in the team could do for him, but what he could do for his team from that position. Laxman redefined his role at No. 6, and, starting with India's tour of West Indies in 2001-02, became a solid and reliable presence at a position which needed just those qualities.
During that tour, Laxman made 474 runs at 79, and played a matchwinning role at Port-of-Spain, scoring 69 not out and 74. He also made 130 at St John's. Laxman then began the tour to England well, with 43 not out and 74 at Lord's, but was not called upon to do much after that, with the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly triumvirate in sparkling form.
Against West Indies at home, he played a match-saving knock of 154 not out at Kolkata, an innings that was sharply in contrast to his previous one there, but one that defined his new role perfectly. His strokeplay was still delightful, but he was more selective, and more solid. His reliability was just what India needed at No. 6, given how prone they are to collapses.
In the 25 Tests since Kolkata, Laxman has averaged 53.3; in the 16 Tests since India's tour of West Indies last year, he has averaged 62.5. He has been consistent in a batting position that has often given India problems, and it is astonishing that every once in a while, the media speculates if he will be dropped. Drop Laxman? What precisely are you smoking, gentlemen?
If this series reinforced Laxman's importance to the side, it also introduced a fine young talent in Akash Chopra. Chopra will not often take your breath away, but more importantly, he won't throw the game away either. What is it with Indian openers and saving Tests? Deep Dasgupta did it at Port Elizabeth, Sanjay Bangar played a matchwinning role at Headingley, and now this. Chopra looks the part of an opener: he plays a compact game, knows where his off stump is, and where to drive that half-volley. Also, unlike the hero of an earlier pre-Australian-tour series against New Zealand, Devang Gandhi, Chopra bats well on the back foot. He will, one hopes, last longer than his predecessors.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.