VVS Laxman won't be missed, he'll be ached and pined for

In so many matches, at so many crucial points, VVS Laxman walked in for India, seized the moment, made it his own, and left the match indelibly altered, even if the innings itself didn't become a classic.

Updated: August 22, 2012 08:36 IST
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Bangalore: It was the fortnight before Christmas. India were playing Australia at Adelaide in 2003, in a game quite rightly remembered as Rahul Dravid's Test. Historically poor chasers, who could not handle the pressure of batting well in the fourth innings, India had a wobble while going for victory. At 170 for 4, with the target still 60 runs away, the scenario was ripe for another implosion and heart-breaking loss.

Except, the man who walked in at number six didn't seem to have been told of India's historical frailty. At one end, Dravid was holding fort, but for a brief passage of play in that fourth innings chase, it was all about VVS Laxman. He ended up hitting 32 off 34 balls - rarely has a cameo been worth more.

Laxman did that to you. To the most hardened sports writers, or even number-crunchers - he made numbers superfluous. In so many matches, at so many crucial points, Laxman walked in for India, seized the moment, made it his own, and left the match indelibly altered, even if the innings itself didn't become a classic.

When he stayed for any length of time, he moved mountains and parted seas.

But whatever the length of his innings, he always had that air of being the man who would seize the moment. Not by the scruff of the neck - that wouldn't have been his style - but gently, if no less firmly.

On reflection, it seems odd that in a line-up that contained an opener who could score almost a triple-century in a day, a man who made obduracy a byword for his batting and was responsible for more Indian Test wins than any other, and another universally acknowledged as the modern master of batting, it should have fallen on Laxman to be the man for the moment whenever the extraordinary was required.

No, what seems odd is the fact that it didn't seem odd then - it felt natural. If something outside the boundary of rational expectation was necessary, VVS was the man.

It wasn't reasonable for people to expect a 281-at-Eden-Gardens every time India were in a tough spot after 2001, but Laxman's batting itself was not governed by what was reasonably expected. He ended with an average of less than 46 in an era when 50 is routinely achieved. And yet, in innings while following on, his average (146.50) is better than - wait for it - Sir Donald Bradman (119.50). He batted at number ten in Mohali in 2010 due to a bad back, but took India to victory in the second innings by putting on 92 runs with the last two batsmen. He scored 96 and 38 in Durban three months later when the best score by any other batsman across four innings was 39. This in a match featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers.

His batting was all geometry and art - how could his masterpieces have been linear progressions?

Nobody else allied iron to artistry the way VVS did. If he had been Australian, he'd have been the synthesis of the images Steve and Mark Waugh had - gritty, in-the-trenches resolve like Steve, silken grace like Mark.

That is why he occupied the unique space of achieving so much on the field in difficult situations and simultaneously providing such joy when he did it.

And yet, it's difficult to think of any other man achieving what Laxman did and still having a selectorial axe hanging so readily over his head.

In a previous job, I had to interact with the people who handled public relations for a sports-related company that was venturing into cricket. The company's public relations people told me they were looking to ally themselves with pure cricket and none of the razzmatazz that accompanies Twenty20 leagues and spoke of which cricketers they were taking on board. I asked them, “Why not include VVS Laxman?” He was among the best faces for the purity of cricket and didn't have any rival contract either. All I got as an answer was, “Hmm, that is a very good question.”

Perhaps because of the down-to-earth - almost self-effacing - nature of the man, it seemed so easy for many people to forget what he had done. Maybe that is why the big advertising contracts didn't come, and the axe was always poised to fall.

Ironically, now that he has retired, there is little danger of people forgetting VVS Laxman.

Arguments abound that he was among the last of a breed. That it will be impossible to find another like him, when young cricketers are increasingly looking to clear their front legs and give the ball a thwack for 20 overs, rather than glide it into empty corners of the field for three sessions.

It is difficult to argue otherwise. But VVS Laxman spoiled me that way. He taught me that it's okay to expect the irrational.

He brought a sense of wonder while watching him at work. Where his wrists could send the same ball to either cover or midwicket. Where his back - physically dodgy, metaphorically forged from steel - seemed at ease with the burden of conjuring victories when there was little hope.

And so, I expect I will never completely give up hope that the future may bring someone who can make batting look as easy, whose strokes are caressed rather than hit - maybe even someone who is as fluid while batting as he is lumbering in the field.

But I don't expect there to be another VVS. He gave me the greatest joy I have ever got while watching a cricket match, and formed part of my growing years. They don't come back, and that kind of unadulterated delight in what is, after all, a game, cannot be matched when childhood gives way to adulthood.

You won't just be missed VVS, you'll be ached and pined for.

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