Had VVS Laxman walked the ramp at a few fashion shows or dated a B-lister, the man on the street might have seen him as an icon
By Dileep Premachandran
IF YOU want to know a sportsman’s true worth, talk to his peers, especially those in the opposition. After the Mohali Test, Ricky Ponting was asked about VVS Laxman, the scourge of Australian bowling attacks ever since he made his first century against them more than a decade ago. “He has been a bit of a thorn in our side,” said Ponting ruefully. “There is no doubt about that. I guess he and Sachin Tendulkar would be the two who have done the most damage over the years.”
These days, teams leave nothing to chance when it comes to preparation. Each batsman is scrutinised with the help of video footage and data that can help you pinpoint even a slight weakness. “We have analysed him inside out,” said Ponting. Having seen Laxman steal a Test match win with a dazzling 79-ball 73, there was little he could do other than resort to humour. “I hope his back’s pretty sore for next week as well and he can’t play (in Bengaluru),” quipped the Australian captain as the grimace briefly became a grin.
The Australians have trouble understanding 35-year-old Laxman’s status in Indian cricket. A few years ago, they couldn’t fathom why Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were thought of as the trinity, and Laxman an afterthought. Adam Gilchrist, the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman of the age, put it best after a Laxman masterclass had ensured that Steve Waugh would be denied a triumphant farewell at Sydney in January 2004.
“Every time he plays against us, he comes up with something special, and the next thing we read after the series is that he has been dropped,” Gilchrist said with reference to Laxman’s omission from the 2003 World Cup squad. “It leaves me completely bewildered.”
A couple of days later, I met Laxman in the team hotel. The Observer in London wanted a lengthy profile. Their sports editor, Brian Oliver, was another Laxman admirer, as perplexed as Gilchrist that he wasn’t considered more of a star in his own country. The premise for the article was Indian cricket’s obsession with its three Rams, and how, as in the Ramayan, Laxman wasn’t quite seen as an equal.
I asked Laxman how he felt. His 281 against the Aussies at the Eden Gardens nearly three years earlier was at the time the highest score by an Indian. Even if India plays Test cricket for another 100 years, it’s unlikely that anyone will match the magnificence of that effort, against opposition of that calibre. Yet, despite that, he wasn’t perceived to be in the same league as the big three.
“I have never thought along those lines,” Laxman told me. “My parents always taught me to do my duty without thinking of the fruits of the labour. The rewards are incidental.” How many of Indian cricket’s young tyros can you imagine saying that?
We talked about the Page 3 culture and how his name had never been mentioned in connection with a Bollywood actor or three. “I really concentrate on playing the game,” he said with a laugh. “I’m focussed on my game, rather than on extra- curricular activities. I think it’s a good thing that my name doesn’t crop up on the scandal sheets.”
That’s part of Laxman’s ‘problem’. Had he walked the ramp at a few fashion shows — and let’s face it, he is better looking than the majority of his teammates — or dated the odd B-lister, the man on the street might have seen him as more of an icon. Instead, he gets his moments in the sun, usually against Australia, and then disappears into the margins. Just as he prefers it.
The Page 3 culture spread to cricket in the 1990s, and has helped skew perceptions. Several players who are as comfortable against the short ball as a man standing on blazing coals are lauded as the faces of “new India”, icons for the Pepsi- Blackberry-Multiplex generation. It’s doubtful if they will ever be able to boast of six centuries against the best team in modern cricket, but the fact they have smacked a few sixes against mediocre opposition in the self-proclaimed “greatest show on earth” (Lalit Modi’s code for the IPL) means they enjoy a status that Laxman never had.
We need to qualify that by saying that those that truly matter — his teammates and the hardcore fans, as opposed to those who go for cricket matches wearing Shah Rukh Khan shirts — have never questioned his value to the side.
Despite his dodgy knees and relative lack of athleticism, he has been one of the first names on the sheet for most Indian captains. Dravid, who has had two triple-century partnerships with Laxman, put it best when he said: “When Laxman walks in, whether you are batting in the middle or sitting in the pavilion and a wicket has fallen, he brings calm to the whole dressing room.”
FOR MANY neutral fans, the admiration of Laxman borders on reverence. One of my friends in London, something of an encyclopaedia on sport and its history, tweeted this on the final morning of the Mohali game: “VVS is in danger of becoming my favourite cricketer ever, favourite person ever and recipient of a proposal of marriage.” Coming from a 40-something man with two kids, it was quite a compliment.
But it’s not just Laxman, though. Indian cricket has been fortunate in the extreme to have a generation of senior cricketers who are exemplary role models. “If you think back to the mid-1990s, Pakistan had a much better side,” says Peter Roebuck, the former Somerset captain who is now one of the more thoughtful writers on the game. “But their senior players fought and bickered and, in some cases, did worse things. In contrast, India have had Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble and Laxman. All men of high calibre.”
Laxman can now boast of two match-winning innings on the bounce, a feat that won’t be matched any time soon. But ‘boast’ is the wrong word for a man who has always been loath to champion his cause. “I’m not a shy person,” he says. “But I don’t show my emotions much.”
In a country where actors who can’t emote for nuts are considered ‘great’ while those who can are relegated to ‘art films’, it’s no surprise that Laxman hasn’t always been given his due. Only when he walks away, taking with him that zenlike calm and pristine timing, will we appreciate his true worth. When the new kids on the block flounder as the ball rears towards the throat, some of us will sigh wistfully and think of how different it was with a very very special player.
Premachandran is Associate Editor, Cricinfo