Nice guys finish first


VVS Laxman will be missed, not just for elegant, wristy strokes, but for his quiet, unaffected decency, says Suresh Menon

A shot at fame Laxman on the way to his maiden Test century
Photo: AFP

BY THE time the Class of ’96 meets for their silver jubilee reunion in 2021, history would have imposed order and provided perspective to their achievements. What seems significant now might be seen as merely incidental then, and vice versa. That year, 1996, was when Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman made their debut in international cricket. Not since 1961-62, when MAK Pataudi, Farokh Engineer and Erapally Prasanna all made their debut within weeks of one another, have three players of such diverse skills and world class accomplishments come together in a single season.

At that reunion, will Ganguly talk about his century on debut at Lord’s or his captaincy which allowed the likes of Dravid and Laxman to flourish (the former averaged 73 in Test, the latter 52 under him)? Will Dravid recall how he walked when he was on 95 in his inaugural Test innings at Lord’s or how he finished as the top scorer in the 1999 World Cup? And will Laxman, mildest of men, joke about how he gave the selectors an ultimatum: “I will only play in the middle order, no opening the batting for me.” Or will he finally spill the beans on how he was pushed when he had no intention of jumping just then?

Perhaps none of this will matter a decade from now. Both Ganguly and Dravid left on their own terms, and Laxman, like a character out of Chekhov, moved aside when he could have finished his career with a Test on his home ground. He turned his back on vanity and the forced happy ending. But in sport there are no guarantees. Laxman’s spiritual guru from Hyderabad, ML Jaisimha, played his last Test at home — but ended his career with a pair, out for zero in each innings.

Still, Laxman managed to catch the all-knowing media, as well as the selectors, by surprise. Calling it a day could not have been easy. Laxman appeared slightly embarrassed at his nationally-televised press conference. He is happier playing Shane Warne than making speeches. Sportsmen would rather bid farewell on the field than in a room with a hundred microphones and dodgy power supply. The essential honesty of the man, however, came through. He infused the expression ‘inner voice’ with a quality that rescued it from the level of mere platitude. He broke into a grin like a schoolboy when the power failed mid-sentence. Character showed itself in reactions to unplanned situations. Unlike Dravid, who had been mulling for months before announcing his retirement, Laxman came to a decision after a couple of days’ thought.

He had been preparing for the full season, which included Tests against both England and Australia, and the temptation to play the Hyderabad Test must have been strong. He was in the team, after all. He turns 38 in November; at 17, he had given himself five years’ time to make it to the Test team, failing which he was willing to go into the family business, as it were. Both his parents, and an assortment of relatives, are doctors. He had the strength of character to set out a path and follow it diligently then. Clearly the man’s inner strength has not deserted him. It might have been a unexpected finish to a glorious career, but the point had been made. The selectors, caught off guard, replaced Laxman with a 32-year-old, so unprepared have they been for the inevitable. Even if, as in Laxman’s case, they hastened the inevitable themselves.

Laxman was tough, but he wasn’t obsessed with the notion of showing the bowler who was boss

The goodbyes in the media have been fond, recalling his greatest knocks as well as his wonderful ability to make everything look so easy. There has been a suggestion of under-performance, however, perhaps inspired by Laxman’s average of 46. In recent years, Indians have been spoilt by the records of Tendulkar and Dravid, both with averages in the mid-fifties. But to put it in perspective, before the current crop, Sunil Gavaskar alone finished with an average above 50.

More significantly, Laxman belongs to another group, the aesthetes. This group averages in the early to mid-forties, for consistency is not their strong point. Elegance brings with it the seeds of its own destruction; the ability to play the ball pitched on the same spot to three or four different regions of the field with a mobile wrist comes with the danger of falling between stools.

Thus, it is that statistically Laxman finds himself among David Gower (average 44), Mark Waugh (42), Mohammad Azharuddin (45), Gundappa Vishwanath (42), Martin Crowe (45) and Zaheer Abbas (45). Not bad company at all. His whiplash wrists and a natural sense of timing meant that when he was at the crease, cricket reverted to what it always aspired to — a sport where the result was of no consequence, where visual pleasure and sportsmanship were everything.

Final goodbye Laxman arrives at a press conference with his family
Photo: AFP

Of all sports, cricket cares the least for context. A brilliant 70 in a losing cause is discussed, admired, analysed far more than a stodgy century in a win. Yet Laxman was not all style — he had substance. His 281 in the Kolkata Test, which enabled India to beat Steve Waugh’s Australia after following on, changed the face of Indian cricket. It is the defining innings of the Golden Era, when India rose to become the No. 1 side in the world.

Thus, in the Tendulkar era, it was left to Laxman to play the defining innings.

As Laxman and his buddy Dravid batted through the day, a decade and more ago in Kolkata, they revealed the possibilities in a team just beginning to come together after the shock of losing a captain to the scourge of match-fixing. Ganguly replaced Mohammad Azharuddin, and so too, in a sense, did Laxman; the one as captain, the other as the most pleasing batsman in the side.

At his best, Laxman did not so much break the rules of batsmanship as provide alternatives that made for another internally consistent system. If you were a Dravid you moved forward and met an over-pitched ball outside the off stump with the full face of the bat and drove it to the cover boundary. Which is all right and proper. Or, if you were Laxman, you rocked back on your heels and flicked it past square leg. Not even Tendulkar, with his range and record, managed to outshine Laxman when he charmed us with shots conceived in some aesthetic heaven and executed as if it were the most natural thing to do.

Yet, would he be an automatic choice for an all-time India XI? There is, in practical terms only one slot since Dravid and Tendulkar are at No. 3 and No. 4 respectively, and the two all rounders Vinoo Mankad and Kapil Dev at six and seven. Whom would Laxman push out from among Vijay Hazare, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath, Vijay Manjrekar, Gundappa Vishwanath, CK Nayudu? Laxman might be the emotional favourite now — and emotion has played a big role in so many of our selections, especially in mythical teams like the all-time XI — but when reason returns, it might turn out that a couple of candidates have better credentials.

And therein lies the essential Laxman problem. Only occasionally did he impose himself on the opposition, only rarely did he dominate. This might have had as much to do with his temperament which was equable, affable, unselfish — whereas those who dominate (whether in attack, like Tendulkar or in defence, like Dravid) must necessarily be obsessed with the idea first. Laxman was tough, but he wasn’t obsessed with the notion of showing the bowler who was boss.

Yet, bowlers from around the world have heaved a sigh of relief that he will trouble them no more, that he will not demoralise them by sending their best deliveries screaming to the fence with the softest of touches and the most gentle of smiles. This relief, however, is tinged with a touch of regret too, for they will no longer be able to share the 22 yards with a player whose artistry raised the level of their profession.


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