Very Very Special Laxman

He is now the leading batsman in the world against Australia. In 10 test matches, he has scored 1,119 runs against the most formidable bowling side in the world, with three hundreds, at the phenomenal average of 62.16. From the selfish cricket fan’s point of view, you could say that India has plenty of doctors but few middle order batsmen as stylish and solid as Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman.The world of medicine’s loss has no doubt turned out to be cricket’s gain. His parent’s (both doctors) decision in 1992 to allow him to skip his medical entrance exams, despite excellent grades, and instead send him to a national Under-19 camp in Bangalore can now with 20/20 vision be looked back at with immense satisfaction. “I decided to give myself four years to make it in cricket, knowing that if I didn’t, I could always go for medicine” he had said. Sure enough, within four years he was making his Test debut with 51 against South Africa at Ahmedabad, in November 1996.

An alert uncle spotted the infant Sunil Gavaskar in the maternity ward after a mix-up with a fisherwoman’s baby, and a young Sachin Tendulkar was sent to a cricket coaching camp to keep him out of mischief after he fell from a tree when he was 10 years old. It was a close call for Laxman too.The propensity for big hundreds was first noticed in an Under-13 match for Hyderabad in 1987, when the youngster scored 153. And the habit has stayed with him right through. Indian cricket can thank its lucky stars for those gifts of patience, concentration and stamina, because they have enabled him in the last two years to be at the forefront of two famous victories over world champions Australia.

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Still, the adjectives one hears most often when cricket writers and commentators struggle to find words to describe his strokeplay are ‘stylish’ and ‘elegant’. The roots of these aesthetic qualities of batsmanship can be traced to his home city of Hyderabad, more famous for the Charminar, biryani and the flamboyant nizams, but also home to the ‘Hyderabad School of Indian Batting’.While the ‘Bombay/Mumbai School of Indian Batting’ was traditionally attritional and orthodox (before Vinod Kambli and Tendulkar broke the mould), in Hyderabad it has always been about wristy, even flashy unorthodoxy. Laxman himself had as one of his early coaches one of the original and most famous members of that school, the late Test batsman of the ’60’s, M L Jaisimha. Abbas Ali Baig and Mansur Ali Khan ‘Pataudi’ also played a lot of their cricket in Hyderabad, but the man who perhaps epitomised Hyderabad best was former captain Mohammed Azharuddin, who is still struggling to clear his name after the match-fixing charges of 2000 brought his career to an end after 99 Tests.

Laxman played a lot of cricket in Hyderabad with Azhar and some of that magic—the ability to turn balls outside the off-stump to the leg-side boundary with a mere flick of the wrists—must surely have rubbed off on the young Laxman. He has two triple-hundreds for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. In an Indian side full of batting talent, he is the lone triple-centurion. And he almost repeated the feat in Test cricket, too. Out of 10 Test cricket-playing nations, only five have produced triple centurions. For nearly 20 years, Gavaskar’s 236 not out against the West Indies in Chennai remained the highest score for India. All that changed in one of the great turnarounds in the history of sport, when India beat Australia after following on in the second Test at Kolkata in March 2001, just the third such occurrence since Test cricket was born in 1877.

That match is now part of Indian cricket’s folklore, as is Laxman’s monumental 281, the highest score against an Australian side for 63 years. It moved former Australian captain Ian Chappell to dub him as ‘Very Special’ Laxman. Just a year earlier, the world champs had gotten their first taste of Laxman’s talents when he blasted them for 167 off 198 balls, in an Indian total of 261, in the third Test at Sydney. That was his first Test century and came at the end of a miserable series for the Indians, who were trounced 3-0. And then at Adelaide last month, it was his 148 in the first innings, combined with Rahul Dravid’s double century, that once again took the wind out of the Aussie sails.

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As mentioned, he is now the leading batsman in the world against Australia. In 10 Test matches, he has scored 1,119 runs against the most formidable bowling side in the world, with three hundreds (167, 281 and 148) at the phenomenal average of 62.16, against a current career Test average of 49.71 from 48 Tests (all statistics till the second Test at Adelaide). By contrast, Tendulkar, long considered the champion side’s scourge, has seen his average drop below 50.

There have been triumphs in the West Indies last year and South Africa in 2001 and more recently at home, where Laxman saved India from the ignominy of defeat at the hands of New Zealand, who had never won a series in India.The bitterest blow, though, came when he was dropped for the World Cup in South Africa. “I was very, very hurt” to be dropped, he says. That was after just one failure on the disastrous tour to New Zealand late in 2002, where all the top batsmen flopped on the under-prepared Kiwi tracks. It has been said (and not without justification) that he is not the quickest mover between the wickets or in the field, and this must have gone against him when it was time for selection. Indeed, in the recent final of the tri-series against Australia at Kolkata, he floored four catches, thus almost single-handedly handing the title over. And his run-out ratio in ODIs is worse than even that of Pakistan’s lugubrious Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Test cricket, though, is where his talents have really flowered since he was promoted to the pivotal number three slot, in the second innings of that epochal Kolkata Test after top scoring with 59 in the first innings. Till then, he had been shunted from opening the innings to number six, a position he is now back at and comfortable with, as the masterly Dravid has regained his number three slot.

It was Laxman’s 281, combined with Dravid’s 180, that turned back the inexorable Aussie tide and made cricket history at the Eden Gardens. It was Laxman and Dravid who came together at Adelaide to once again turn the tables on their fancied opponents, making them the only pair in cricket history with two 300-plus partnerships against Australia in Test cricket.

Both on and off the field, they are a study in contrasts. Dravid, all technical correctness, and Laxman, able to conjure up stunning strokes seemingly out of thin air with a mere wave of his magic wand. In that sense, they are reminiscent of another great pair of Indian batsmen from an earlier era, Gavaskar and his brother-in-law GR Vishwanath. The difference is that for some mysterious reason, Sunny and GRV rarely clicked together in a Test match. Laxman is a vegetarian while Dravid is not. Laxman is a member of cricket’s ‘Discman Brigade’ (the men who constantly listen to music with headphones) while Dravid is one of the game’s great readers, his range of reading going from the classic To Kill a Mocking Bird to motivational sports books.

India’s famed middle-order is considered the strongest in the world, though strength on paper does not always translate into runs at the wicket. Tendulkar, Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were all born in 1973. Laxman will be 30 next November and is sure to be around for quite a few more years. Cricket fans all over the world can be mighty grateful for that.