Laxman won India a Test match as recently as last December
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There is more than a touch of piquancy in the fact that the final day of this Mohali Test will mark the fifth anniversary of VVS Laxman's amble to the Eden Gardens wicket, and perhaps the greatest Test innings of the modern age. For over three years following that epic effort, Laxman was the third name on the team-sheet when the batting order was jotted down, and in a golden run that spanned 30 Tests - six centuries and 13 fifties while averaging 63.26 - he proved that Kolkata was anything but an isolated display of brittle genius.
His subsequent travails - 981 runs at 32.7 from 23 Tests - pushed him back into the margins though, and when he felt the cold touch on the shoulder at Mohali, there were few murmurs of protest, even from his most vociferous backers. On the surface, the decision to leave him out was a tactical ploy, as India played the extra bowler in an effort to bowl out the opposition twice. But the fact that Yuvraj Singh, who has enjoyed a magic carpet ride since a breakthrough Test innings against Sri Lanka at New Delhi, was eased into the middle order at his expense said enough about Laxman's declining fortunes.
The troughs, and there have been many, of the past two seasons gradually obliterated any trace of the resplendent batting that epitomised his halcyon years. Post Eden, there were many defining innings, including the unbeaten 154 at Eden Gardens that saved a Test against West Indies, but the pinnacle was reached in Australia against his favourite opposition, with scores of 75, 148 - an Adelaide revival with Rahul Dravid that was uncannily similar to Kolkata - and 178 showcasing a talent at its peak.
Perhaps not even Laxman knows what went wrong after that. A dodgy knee that needed surgery didn't help, but the confidence and panache were gone, reappearing only fleetingly, as in the course of the magnificent 69 that won India the Mumbai Test against Australia. Too often though, such mastery was obscured by patchy efforts that weren't stamped with his most recognisable qualities - fluency and a wondrous sense of timing.
That Mumbai innings apart, he failed against Australia, undone by bowlers who preyed on his perceived weaknesses while choking off the dazzling cuts and drives that had tormented them in previous encounters. There were only two centuries during the fallow run, 140 against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, and another matchwinning effort at Ahmedabad last December after Sri Lanka had disposed of the top order for just 97. He could hardly be said to have failed thereafter, stroking a superb 90 at Faisalabad and getting starts in both innings at Karachi before Mohammad Asif exploited the gap between prodding bat and stationary pad to telling effect.
His vulnerability against the incoming delivery was often cited by his harshest critics, with many saying that a top-class batsman shouldn't get out bowled or leg before as often as he did. But a cursory look at the figures reveals just how selective the criticism was. Since Kolkata, he had been out bowled 15 times, and leg before on seven occasions. In the same period, Rahul Dravid saw the timber rattled 17 times, and was trapped in front on 11 occasions. The corresponding figures for Sachin Tendulkar (14 and 21), Brian Lara (19 and 14) and Ricky Ponting (10 and 17) reveal the true extent of the conspiracy dreamt up by those with vested interests, and the sole intention of undermining Laxman's confidence while propping up an underperformer in the middle order.
With Sourav Ganguly gone, it was always likely that Laxman would be the next to make way for a newer, more athletic generation. But unlike Ganguly, whose last defining Test innings was the 73 at the MCG in the Boxing Day Test of 2003, Laxman still offered a genuine matchwinning option. Unfortunately for him, so did Yuvraj, whose imperious batsmanship for much of the current season has been nothing short of a revelation.
For Dravid, whose friendship with him dates back to their days in the juniors, it would have been an incredibly hard call to make. For Laxman himself, it must have felt like the end of an era. But after the struggles of the past two seasons, he could have few complaints. Like life, cricket too has its share of intolerable cruelty, while offering the chance of redemption. Now into his 32nd year, Laxman alone knows whether the flames of ambition that fuelled his golden years still burns bright. The announcement of the XI for Mumbai will be the first big test of his resolve. A triumphant return is not improbable, but at the same time it's hard to escape the impression that the wonder years may now be a mere memory.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo