A selfless cricketer

Print edition : September 21, 2012

V.V.S. Laxman after scoring a century in the second Test against the West Indies at the Eden Gardens on November 15, 2011.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

With V.V.S. Laxmans retirement, an era of classical batsmanship has come to an end.

HE created symphony with the bat. The opposition would be the choir, so enchanting was Vangipura Ventaka Sai Laxmans creativity on the cricket field. His was a story worthy of assuming the status of a legend. He played with dignity and quit with grace, leaving his admirers in a state of disbelief.

Laxman had been picked to play the two Test matches against New Zealand, the first at Hyderabad, his home turf. But he experienced a very different inner voice this time. It exhorted him to review his desire to continue playing. Nearly 10 days of deliberations and conflict with self left Laxman mentally drained. I just couldnt motivate myself to take guard, he confessed and chose to leave the scene on his terms.

For a batsman of his calibre and skills, Laxman rarely earned the appreciation he deserved. He never got his due, never. He was always under pressure, and it is a pity that Laxman played 134 Tests and his critics would have asked 100 times when would he retire? To me, he was an exceptionally gifted cricketer who gave us unstinted joy with his batting, said former Test captain Anil Kumble.

Laxman was joy indeed. His presence at the crease meant a pristine demonstration of the art of batting. How many batsmen would send the audience into raptures by merely caressing the ball with some divine timing? The ball always went in the direction he intended. He did not believe in putting that extra effort and make strokemaking a laborious sight.

On a scale of 10, he scored 10 when it came to producing the big innings. A perfect batsman who knew how to channel his talent and swing a match singlehanded, observed Kapil Dev, who was known to play with the most positive frame of mind.

Laxman had some detractors who questioned his commitment and alleged that he was blocking a youngsters entry. Laxman would be the last man to do so. If there was a team man, it was Laxman. He would accept instructions from the captain without complaints and always put team before self, asserted Kumble, who was pained at his decision to retire. Of course, Kumble respected Laxmans decision and insisted how the affable Hyderabadi had put team before self when taking the step to call it a day.

He was so focussed on playing the 10 Tests at home this season against New Zealand, Australia and England. He spent three months at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and shed five kilos to acquire the required fitness for international cricket. He announced his form with a clinical century in the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) tournament at Mysore. Former Test spinner Sunil Joshi remarked: He batted so beautifully for that century.

It was an irony that Laxman chose to retire in order to create a slot for a youngster and the national selectors picked a 31-year-old as his replacement. Laxmans decision to retire even after being selected was prompted by his belief that a youngster needed to play in favourable conditions at home before preparing for the gruelling challenges overseas. A selfless cricketer, Laxman won the hearts of millions with his sacrifice.

It would be pertinent here to quote former Test left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, who highlighted Laxmans altruistic attitude to life. Remember when you decided to divest the icon status at Deccan Chargers in the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League? I knew you never had any fascination for money; what you were eager for was to make sure Hyderabad had a strong team. You always strived to make an honest attempt to make your team perform. Personally, I have always been surprised about how you never said anything bad about anyone your critics, even people who have harmed you, wrote Kartik. So true. His colleagues have never heard Laxman ever utter a cuss word.

Laxmans career was marked by his ability to play the big innings. After a sedate debut against South Africa in 1996, he was in danger of losing his place on the disastrous tour to Australia in 1999-2000. At Sydney, he found himself opening the innings and his response was a delightful 167 that was acclaimed as a classic by the Australian critics. That innings resurrected his career and launched his competitive rivalry with the Australians.

Of his 17 Test centuries, six have come against Australia including the epic 281 at Kolkata and 200 not out at Delhi. His first contest against Australia, at Kolkata in 1998, saw Laxman produce a brilliant 95 as an opener. The Australian public loves a healthy battle on the cricket field and Laxman was as big a hit with them as Sachin Tendulkar. Four Test centuries in four series in Australia placed Laxman in the top bracket of popular cricketers. In Indias first ever Test win at Perth (in 2008), Laxman came up with a decisive 79 at No 7 in the second innings to set the stage for victory.

IN FULL FLOW on the third day of the second Test against Sri Lanka at Colombo in July 2010.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The purists adore him. In an era when crass commercialism and robust methods dominate international cricket, Laxman remained a refreshing exception. His humility was the inner strength that kept him grounded. When comparisons were drawn with Mohammad Azharuddin, he responded, Please ask people not to make any comparisons. He is a far greater batsman. Azharuddin was touched by Laxmans feelings for him.

Laxmans forte was his ability to play all the shots on any surface. Like Virender Sehwag, he believed in taking the initiative. I wouldnt like to miss a ball when he bats, said Sehwag, a huge fan of Laxman. Bowlers dread the sight of Laxman because he makes batting look so easy. It can be tough to pursue a particular line because he sees the ball early and plays it so late that he can make a mockery of the field you might set to contain him, said Test off-spinner Harbhajan Singh.

It is one thing to have talent and another to put it to use. Laxman did it with elan! Needless defence hardly helps, Laxman would say. He set new benchmarks at the start of a season and worked towards achieving them. He prospered by backing himself even as the team management shunted him in the batting order. He has batted from positions 1 to 8 and once at 10 in the Test against Australia in 2010. He took guard at No 10 in the first innings and scripted a match-winning 73 not out at No 7 in the second innings as India scampered home by one wicket.

Laxman, part of a formidable Indian middle order comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, could have made a capable captain, but the Board never gave him that opportunity. He did come close a few times but the authorities showed greater trust in others when it was known that he had the leadership qualities, having played the role well for India A and Rest of India on a few occasions.

On three occasions he lost his place in the Test team. On two occasions he did not figure in the playing eleven because he opted to sit out than open the innings. I was not comfortable with the idea, reflected Laxman. In 1999-2000, when he fell out of favour, he hit back with eight sensational centuries, including a 353 against Karnataka, in the Ranji Trophy. The selectors had no choice but to pick him. His bat had done the talking.

The teams failures, and personal too, in England and Australia last season hurt Laxman the most. Just as not playing a World Cup did. I have to live with it all my life. I still feel the hurt sometimes but I know it will pass, said Laxman who relies a lot on Bhagavad Gita for peace.

When he looked ahead, his inner voice convinced him he had to step aside and allow a youngster to prepare for the next season by playing at home in favourable conditions. If I was a young cricketer waiting for a break I would have expected a senior to do what I did, said Laxman.

He took that momentous decision and moved on in life. I achieved more than what I expected from myself, he said in humble introspection. With Laxmans retirement, an era of classical batsmanship came to an end. As Kartik, his best friend, surmised, God doesnt make players and nice human beings like Laxman anymore.

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