Disappointment was a word VVS Laxman used repeatedly as he looked back on the season gone by. One of the bulwarks of the Indian middle order, Laxman made just 182 runs in four Tests in England at 22.75, and 155 runs from four Tests in Australia at 19.37, numbers that are hardly flattering. In between, he did make 298 runs in three home Tests against the West Indies at a Bradmanesque 99.33, but that was swept away in the aftermath of the 0-4 drubbings in England and Australia.
As India geared up for a long home season that encompasses ten Tests, including four each against England and Australia, Laxman was determined to erase those bitter memories. Recharged after a rare five-month break from competitive cricket, he told Wisden India that he was ready for the challenge, starting with the first of two Tests against New Zealand, beginning at Hyderabad on August 23. Excerpts:
It's been more than five months since your last competitive fixture, the Adelaide Test in January. Has it given you an opportunity to take stock?
Definitely. It was an unplanned break. I thought I would play in the IPL but I was not picked up in the auction. But it was a great chance for me to spend some time with my family. For a long time now, I have never spent five months at a stretch with them. Also, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on a tough season gone by. Obviously, England was disappointing and Australia was more so. To get over the disappointment, it was very important that time was the best healer. Luckily for me, the break also gave me the chance to work a lot on my fitness. I have spent a lot of time at the NCA. I have visited the NCA four times in the last three months. Sudarshan, the trainer, and Ashish (Kaushik), the physio, have put me on a very good programme. I am following that programme, feeling really good and looking forward positively to the upcoming season.
Considering you are 37, how do you feel from a body perspective?
I think the body is actually in good shape. I am surprised at what I have been able to do, especially at training. I have probably not done this kind of training for the last three years, since I started having a back problem. But especially in the last one and a half years, from the South Africa series of 2010-11, I have spent a lot of time at the NCA and my back has luckily held up well. I managed to play the entire season without any problem. Even though we played 12 Test matches, I did not struggle with my back at all. That was a good sign.
And from a mental point of view?
I am in a good mental space, I am looking positively towards the upcoming season. It was definitely disappointing, especially what happened in Australia. Personally, I went with a lot of hope. It was a dream of mine, and the entire team, to win the Test series in Australia and I thought we had a great chance. But it was really unfortunate that we as a whole and I myself did not play to our potential. It was very disappointing; to lose in the manner we did was traumatic, if I may say. But saying that, the experience of the past where we bounced back from such disappointments will probably help me look ahead. It's very important that we start the season with a positive frame of mind because we have the same teams to whom we lost badly, England and Australia, visiting India this season. I think it is very important that we take it series by series, starting with New Zealand. I hope that we make amends for what happened last season.
Have you analysed what went wrong with you in Australia?
I have thought long and hard about it. Unlike England, I was not able to get starts except for the Sydney game and to some extent in Perth. I got out very cheaply in most innings. And as a team, we didn't do well. It was a tough series for me and I am hoping that we learn the lessons from Australia and start afresh. The important thing will be to ensure that it is in the past and not think too much about that because you don't want to carry that disappointment into the upcoming season. Luckily, this break has helped.
It wasn't as if you carried bad form into the Australian series...
No, I think I started off well in Canberra in the warm-up game. It was very good preparation. The Board of Control for Cricket in India sent eight of us well ahead of the start of the Test series. From a preparation point of view, I was quite pleased going into the series. Also, I had had a very good series against the West Indies at home before that. I played a crucial knock in Delhi alongside Sachin when we had a stiff fourth-innings chase, I made a hundred in Kolkata and I had a decent knock in Mumbai. So, form-wise and preparation-wise, I was quite happy going into the first Test. But nothing worked out at all. Starting from Melbourne and ending the way it did in Adelaide, it was very disappointing.
If a technical flaw crops up into one's game, is there enough time to work on it during a series?
Yeah, you definitely keep working. You use the breaks between Test matches to do that or if you get out cheaply, you use the time during the Test match to work on that. It is important that you get over the technical problem. Unfortunately, in some instances, while people do a lot of work in the nets, the mistakes keep getting repeated in the middle, which isn't ideal.
You had a fantastic 2010, with match-winning knocks in Colombo, Mohali against Australia and in Durban. How do you reconcile then with a poor 2011?
That's the beauty of playing sport at the international level. Sport teaches you to be very balanced, very equanimous. It's a great leveller. I have had these experiences right through my career. There were lots of lows. I got over them and bounced back strongly. I am sure those experiences will help me and stand me in good stead this time too. It was definitely a tough season, especially two important tours that I was really looking forward to. As a team, we were looking forward to beating England in England and Australia in Australia. But it was a huge disappointment.
How have you managed to maintain your balance and poise despite the year gone by?
I think that's the way I have been brought up. Luckily for me, my parents always told me that you must give your hundred percent, irrespective of how the results go. As long as you know that you have given your best for the team, whichever team it may be, you should not brood over the results. That's why irrespective of whether I had success or failure, my work ethic never changed. The approach to the game never changed, the preparation for a game never changed. That's something that helped me get over all the disappointments I've had in my career. I am very proud of the way I have bounced back from some very tough challenges. That's something that my parents taught me.
The New Zealand series begins on August 23, and you haven't played a competitive game since the end of January. What plans between now and the start of the first Test?
I am quite happy with my preparation for the last two and half months from a fitness point of view and also from the skills point of view. It's very important to go into a series with some match practice under your belt. I am looking to play two club games in the Hyderabad league and I am going to play one tournament being conducted by the KSCA, representing Hyderabad. I am looking to play at least three or four three-day games before going into the first Test.
Do you remember the last time you played a club game?
I think it was almost four years back. Because of the tight international schedule, I haven't been able to play many club games but I am really looking forward to it this time. It's amazing because I always feel that's where we got the opportunity to do well. It's important that whenever you are free and do not have any international assignments, you go back and help the youngsters. I strongly feel that I learnt a lot and benefited a lot growing up playing club cricket alongside some senior cricketers who used to play Ranji cricket and international cricket. So I think it is very important that whenever you get spare time, you play in domestic cricket as well as club cricket in the state championship.
Rahul Dravid played club cricket recently, and Laxman is set to follow suit for Hyderabad.
The quality of bowling at the club level is not something that should challenge you a great deal. How will you keep your intensity levels up?
That's definitely going to be challenging. The important aspect when you are playing such games, like it is when you are playing tour games, is that even though you aren't sometimes able to get quality bowling, the intention is to spend as much time as possible, whether you are batting or fielding. It's ultimately about acclimatising yourself to the amount of overs you are going to be on the field when you play a Test match. I will be looking forward to doing that and spend as much time as possible in the middle with the bat so that when I play the first Test, I'm physically and mentally ready for the challenge.
Rahul Dravid played league cricket in Bangalore, you are going to play league cricket in Hyderabad...
I think it will be a good statement because you came up from that structure. It's very important to go back when you are free and play for your club because it will be a huge motivation for the guys who are playing with you or against you in that particular match. I am sure there will be a lot of bowlers gearing up for the challenge of having a go at us and also the interaction with them - the opposition players during the breaks or with your own team-mates - will be invaluable. I say that from personal experience. I used to play club cricket for Ensconce Cricket club which belonged to Arshad Ayub, and he was Hyderabad captain as well as a Test cricketer at that time. I gained so much experience just standing in the slips with him, talking during breaks. I learned so many things hearing stories from him, hearing about his experiences of playing for the country. It gave me a lot of insight into a player's life, a player's career. I am sure that helped me while I was growing up, and I sure I will pass that on to the youngsters in Hyderabad, like I have been doing whenever I get time to spend with the Ranji Trophy boys or whenever I play for my club, Marredpally Colts.
It must delight you that you will get to play another Test in Hyderabad.
It's a great feeling. It's a wonderful stadium and the last time was a little disappointing because I got into the 60s but I was not able to convert that into a hundred. Hopefully, I will do that this time and we will win the Test because last time, the Kiwis dominated us on that ground. We need to start off the season on a high.
Speaking of Hyderabad, how desperate are you to be a part of the Ranji Trophy-winning team?
That's one dream I would love to realise during my playing days. Whatever I have achieved in life, I have a lot of gratitude for what Hyderabad cricket has given me. It was because of the opportunities they gave me while I was growing up that I have been able to represent the country for so long. I think that's a burning desire. I feel that we had some tough years at the Ranji Trophy level but it was good the way the team bounced back last year from the Plate Division and made it to the quarterfinals. It was good to see a lot of youngsters coming up and winning matches from tough positions. That is a good sign for the future. Sunil Joshi as coach has done really well and we've got great support staff. Everything looks good for Hyderabad cricket and I am sure they will follow up last year with a wonderful season. I am confident they will perform to their potential. Hopefully, whenever I have the time and I am free, I will play for them and realise the dream of winning that title. We came very close in 2000-01 when we unfortunately lost to Mumbai in the final, so I hope I realise that dream.