Durban:For a man who makes the team feel it is in safe hands more often than anybody else, VVS Laxman attracts too many doubters. Even after his three second-innings specials in successive Tests this year, there were a few left to be won over. Especially after his failure in the first Test. It was said that all his celebrated efforts earlier this year - the hundred in the chase at P Sara Oval, the Mohali magic, the match-saving innings from 15 for 5 in Ahmedabad - came on low and slow tracks against bowling that wasn't exactly extraordinary. It was said that, while he was mentally good under pressure, his technique wasn't actually tested. And that his body was giving in.
If after this 96 - the second-best score so far in this Test is 38, also by him - anybody has doubts as to who India's best batsman in crisis and on testing pitches is, we and that person are not watching the same game. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that, under pressure, he is one of the best in the world in this era.
Before this innings, those doubts were perhaps fair. For Laxman had last played a Test outside the subcontinent in New Zealand in 2008-09. Never mind the second-innings century there to help save the Napier Test, for New Zealand didn't exactly have Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at the throats of the batsmen on a pitch like the one at Kingsmead. If the New Zealand tour is to not be counted, he last played outside the subcontinent in 2007-08, in Australia. With nearly three years gone by, and with the back trouble having made a grand comeback over the last year, would he be the same crisis manager against the deadliest fast bowler in the world and his deputy, on tracks with ample bounce and seam?
And then came two failures in the first Test, innings in which Laxman looked comfortable before getting out. Not for the first time, and not for the last, he was doubted. His reply was typical, the only one he knows. In the most testing conditions on this tour so far - the ball didn't seam as much on the first day in Centurion, and it has not been as overcast on the second and third days in Durban - he scored a priceless 38 to take India past 200 in the first innings.
That innings was ended by a stunning catch by Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Despite a good bowling effort, India found themselves in trouble in the second innings, with four wickets gone for 56. This was home territory for Laxman. All boxes that bring the best out of Laxman were checked: the top batsmen were gone, there weren't many on the board, a failure then could lose India the series, and most importantly batting here was not easy.
It took you back to his debut Test, on a cracking pitch, against the same opponents. India then were effectively 70 for 5 in the second innings when the legend started: out came a fifty (with Laxman it is rarely headline-hogging hundreds) and partnerships worth 32 and 56 with Sunil Joshi and Anil Kumble. Javagal Srinath got enough to defend, and ran through South Africa.
If this was a test of technique, Laxman passed it in flying colours. Of all the batsmen on this pitch, he showed the best knowledge of the whereabouts of his off stump. He left alone 63 off the 171 balls he faced, still managing a strike-rate of 56.14. There might have been some luck involved - a leading edge cleared the slips, an inside edge went past the keeper, a couple of outside edges fell short - but it couldn't have happened to a more deserving batsman on this pitch.
"Patience is very important," he said. "If you can get through some difficult times, then you get value for your shots. That's what I learnt in the first innings also, that if you can get through the tough periods, when the bowlers are charged up, you will definitely get balls to score off. Patience is a crucial factor on such wickets."
And then there was the 70-run partnership with Zaheer Khan, his third partner-in-crime from the lower order, this year alone. You would have thought that by now teams would have sorted Laxman's tricks with the lower order out. After all he is not a powerful hitter, he can be easily pinned down to one end with spread fields. His body doesn't even allow him to convert those one-and-halves into twos to manoeuvre strike. Leave alone the doubters, it actually surprises the believers too. When he came for the press conference, the first question was, "Again? How?"
Typically Laxman just praised Zaheer Khan and Cheteshwar Pujara for hanging around with him, not a word about his own innings, only about partnerships. On the surface, Laxman didn't answer the actual question. If you go deeper, he did. He makes the other batsmen feel good, comfortable and calm. Not just the man who is batting with him, but also the ones waiting their turn in the dressing room. When Zaheer Khan came out today and played a few rash shots early on in his innings, Laxman didn't come charging at him with instructions. He understands that tailenders don't fancy hanging in for long against bouncers on a spicy pitch.
Nor do the in-and-out fields fluster Laxman. He still has the gift of placement to keep finding the boundary. Today, after the punches and even an upper-cut, he also pulled out the paddle-sweep, a shot he doesn't often play. There was the disappointment of missing the century, for he doesn't have one in this country at all. That he looked a bit hurried in trying to get to that mark, with No. 11 for company, showed he is human too. However, if this innings results in a series-levelling win, the half-century won't be forgotten as easily as many of his other similar efforts with the tail have been.