Durban:VVS Laxman ranks Durban "up there" with the best wins of his career, especially because on the first day the batsmen had to counter "one of the most challenging wickets I have played on in my career".
"If you beat South Africa on definitely the quickest and bounciest wicket in the country, it gives you that much additional joy," Laxman said, a day after India finished the series-levelling 87-run win. "Everyone talks about Durban being the place where South Africa puts the opposition under pressure, even though the results haven't been going their way recently. It gives us a lot of satisfaction to have beaten them in these conditions."
Laxman said the conditions in Durban were the supreme test of India's batsmen's skill and temperament. "You have got a pace-bowling attack that is one of the best in the world at the moment. Then the conditions were ideal for them, where the ball was seaming, and there was bounce that we are not used to because most of the time we play on subcontinent wickets. Even abroad you don't usually get wickets that have such steep bounce. Test match cricket is all about challenging the skill you have got, and the temperament you have got. And this was one of the most challenging wickets I have played on in my career."
Until Ashwell Prince scored 39 in South Africa's second innings, the game's top two scores belonged to Laxman: 96 and 38. It took a stunning catch to stop him at 38 in the first innings. His patience, his skill, his technique stood apart from the 11 other specialist batsmen and two wicketkeeper-batsmen on show. And again, as has increasingly become Laxman's wont, he added runs with the tail.
"It boils down to the experience and the rapport I share with each one of them," he said of the secret behind his success with the lower order. "It is very important to give them confidence. Luckily, each one of them works on his batting, and they take a lot of pride in their batting and don't want to throw their wicket away. Because they're out there with a fighting spirit, and not to give their wicket away easily to the opposition, it helps me.
"We set ourselves small targets without looking at getting a 30-run or a 50-run partnership. We're just looking to have a five-run partnership or survive one over, and then take it five overs at a time or something like that. The most important thing is knowing what they are comfortable with and that's something I've learnt to do over the years. If I know that a batsman is not comfortable with a certain bowler then I don't give them strike. But if they're comfortable, then I definitely give them the strike because the scoreboard keeps moving and the pressure suddenly shifts from us to the opposition."
Laxman missed out on a century in Durban, which has often been the case with many a crucial knock of his, coming as they tend to do with the lower order for company. Here, too, he was the last man out, trying to get a boundary when the field came up for the last two deliveries of an over. Before that, though, he had played a paddle-sweep to get to the 90s, a shot he doesn't often play.
"That's something I got into my repertoire this year, especially after playing against Sri Lanka last year in India. There was a situation at CCI (the Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai) where they didn't have the square leg back because I don't play the sweep shot. I wasn't getting easy singles. That's when I started playing the sweep shot, and even in Sri Lanka this year I played it. I worked a lot on that shot in the nets, and I'm quite comfortable playing it."
Laxman admitted he was disappointed about missing a century. "You're happy that you've been able to absorb the pressure and perform when it's required and play an important knock for the team, but from a personal milestone point of view you will be very disappointed. As I always feel, my conversion rate hasn't been great, with 49 fifties and 16 hundreds. From a personal point of view I would have been more happy to get centuries in these games, but from the team perspective I've done reasonably well to bail the team out of tough situations."
He might have missed the hundred, but he talked of something that meant more to him. "You always want to be remembered as somebody who contributed to winning matches for the country. The biggest recognition you can get is when your team-mates know that you are somebody who can go in during tough situations and bail the team out, or when the opposition feels that they cannot take it for granted that the match is over till you are out. It also gives you added responsibility that you have to go and do it whenever you play for the country."
Laxman said he doesn't quite know what it is that gets the best out of him in pressure situations. "If the situation is like the one it was in Durban, in both the innings, it gets the best out of me. I don't know the reason for it. Probably the zone I go into when we are faced with a tough challenge is much more consistent than the one I go in with for the first innings."
Laxman said the major difference between the Indian sides that took the field in Centurion and Durban was aggression, not the verbal kind but the intent. "Coming into this Test match we were upset firstly about what happened in Centurion and the preparations were good leading into the Test. The aggression was more than what it was in Centurion. As a fielding unit and a bowling unit, we were aggressive on the field. The turning point was the way our bowlers bowled on the second day because getting just 200 runs on the first-day wicket, even though it was a reasonable achievement by the team, it was still a situation where one partnership could take the game away from us. But our bowlers bowled with intent, the fielders backed them up with some extraordinary catches and the body language was extremely aggressive. I think that was the difference between Centurion and Durban"
One of the major factors in the revival was Zaheer Khan, and Laxman spoke of his value to the team. "He is one of the toughest bowlers to play. I would never like to face him in a match. In the nets he is always at you. The way he prepares, knowing what he is going to do in the upcoming Test, is unbelievable. He is a great role model for all the young fast bowlers.
"As a team-mate, his presence just lifts us because of the way he helps the other fast bowlers. It's not only that he comes and bowls his quota of overs and keeps quiet, but the way he guides an Ishant Sharma or a Sreesanth while they are bowling is unbelievable. He has been a true match-winner for us over the years. Not only where conditions help fast bowling, but also in the subcontinent."