There was a vulnerability about VVS Laxman’s batsmanship, a delicacy, that somehow enhanced the brilliance of his strokeplay. It made him the most loved of the middle order in India’s golden age. Laxman was a throwback to an era of silken batsmanship, of velvet touches and all-round grace. The men around him among India’s Fabulous Four, were held in awe; Laxman’s apparent fragility made him all too human, and therefore loveable. People who had never met the man spoke of his gentleness, their opinion based on nothing more than his cover drive or the ability to play the leg glance in the old-fashioned manner.
Mentally, he was as tough as the Tendulkars, Dravids and Gangulys who formed that middle order, but he seemed to whisper his instructions to the ball to send it screaming to the fence where the others tended to shout at it. Soft hands, a benign attitude, a fine touch — yet the ball left the bat with the air of someone rushing for an appointment he is late for. If a portrait of Indian cricket were to be painted, pastel colours would best represent Laxman, a cultured man who dealt in cultured strokeplay.
As befits a team man, his greatest fans were within the team. During a 353-run partnership in Australia, Tendulkar (who made 241 in that innings) said, “I just decided I was going to stay there and watch from the non-striker’s end.”
It was a vantage point much favoured by his colleagues. Dravid said of Laxman’s batting during their 376-run partnership in Kolkata which turned a Test match against Australia, “I enjoyed it from the other end. It was like watching a highlights package.”
Batsmen like Laxman do not assert their command in averages or in consistent centuries, yet tend to play the defining innings of an era. That 281 in Kolkata inaugurated the golden age of Indian cricket, and was voted time and again as the best innings played by an Indian. There is no record of his skipper Sourav Ganguly telling his players, like Donald Bradman did when Stan McCabe was batting at Nottingham, “Come and watch this, you will never see the likes of it again.” But the comparison is not so much with McCabe’s batting, as with the fact that even in the Bradman era, the two or three defining innings were played by McCabe. In the Tendulkar era, Laxman’s 281, his 167 in Sydney, and the 96 in Durban were the defining innings.
For someone who played 134 Tests, Laxman, amazingly was never in the running for the captaincy; he was never in a World Cup squad; in his early years he wasn’t even a certainty in the team. That a batsman of such obvious class was often challenged by lesser men and one-Test wonders for a place in the squad was testimony to the short-sightedness of the selectors.
Perhaps they equated effortlessness with lack of effort. Everything Laxman did looked effortless — but it shouldn’t fool anybody into thinking that he was too casual. A famous cartoonist once explained his craft thus: Half my job is the effort of drawing the cartoon, the other half is the erasing the signs of such effort.
Batting came more easily to Laxman than it did to most, but that is not why he is in the Indian pantheon with 8,781 runs, the fourth highest aggregate behind Tendulkar, Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar. He takes his place by right as a fully paid-up member of the Wristy Batsmanship Club, one of Indian cricket’s two great traditions, the other being spin bowling.
It is a club with a distinguished membership — it has Ranji and Duleep (although neither played for India), Vijay Manjrekar, ML Jaisimha, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohammed Azharuddin. A soulmate from outside India would be Lawrence Rowe who had the same vulnerability, the same fluidity, the same effortlessness. And the same appetite for big scores. Among contemporaries, Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene is a similar visual treat at the crease. But it is a dying breed, as efficiency replaces style and effectiveness is rated above sheer magic.
To a generation brought up to believe that the product is more important than the process, Laxman might have been an anachronism but for one crucial quality. Laxman had substance to go with the style. He won matches for India especially late in his career when he made batting with nine, 10 and jack into an art form. His batting, far from causing junior partners to give up the ghost in despair at being unable to match it, actually gave them the heart to carry on. Laxman gave them confidence, and they responded by concentrating harder.
As a catcher at slip, Laxman was only a whit behind Dravid, his friend and chatting partner in that cordon. Only Dravid, with his world record 210, has caught more. These two, along with Tendulkar must take some of the credit for the success of the Indian bowling in the golden era. Fast bowlers knew that edges would be taken, spinners could experiment confident that even hard slashes would be grasped by the many soft pairs of hands.
There has been speculation for months now that Laxman might call it a day after the Hyderabad Test commencing on Thursday. That would have been a Bollywood ending — with perhaps a century on his home ground and an Indian win against New Zealand. It must have been a wrench, the decision to quit at this time. After all, he was already in the squad for the Tests. By doing the decent thing after disastrous series in England and Australia, Laxman has given the selectors more time to try out more options before the tougher series abroad next year, even if by his own admission, he took them into confidence only on the morning of his announcement. It will not be easy to fill the shoes of players like Dravid and Laxman.
For 16 years at the highest level, Laxman personified grace in everything he did. He was incapable of an ugly stroke. He deserves his rest, his time with the family and our blessings as he follows his final dream — to win the Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad.
II: “End of a glorious chapter” by Vijay Lokapally in The Hindu and The Island
Cricket will always be played and batting always celebrated. It has been so for ages. But the game won’t have a V.V.S. Laxman to decorate it with gems that had become an essential ingredient of his cricket career. The graceful batsman has chosen to retire with dignity, even though in a huff, and kept his anguish to himself. He mulled over it for four days and it was a painful decision he was compelled to take in the interest of the team and his self-pride. He could not always play on his terms, but at least in quitting he had it his way.
With Laxman’s exit, one of Indian cricket’s most glorious chapters of aesthetic batting has shut. To watch him bat was bliss. His class was pristine and Laxman knew it well. He worked hard to hone his style, mostly natural.
Those breathtaking flicks and nudges, those majestic drives and the nonchalant pulls, he had come to master them all. At a nets session one remembers coach John Wright calling a young batsman and telling him, “Watch him, but don’t try to imitate. Only VVS can play them.” Yes, only Laxman could have played with such imperious dominance. Not at nets; in a challenging match situation. The affable Hyderabadi never had his way. He was made to open and was often shuffled in the batting order against his wishes till the time he got stuck at number 6.
This was a role he enjoyed immensely for it allowed him to grow as an individual in a team game. He played with great dignity, never inviting or expressing disrespect for fellow players or the opposition. Cricket was a pleasant way of life for Laxman, who scored centuries in Tests from position 1 to 6.
His batting was so strikingly contradictory to his character. Off the field he couldn’t hurt a fly but Laxman, the batsman, could destroy the most-famed bowling attacks. And here too, he would carry on the job in a manner that left even the opposition admiring his art. He was an artist. The canvas of batting was a colourful salutation to his range. He could bat. And he could make others bat. Really, batting looked so easy, so attractive, when Laxman was on strike. He never struck at the ball but merely caressed it. His soft nature created a soft repertoire but quite an effective one.
Laxman, 37, was extremely popular with the Indian bowlers for two reasons. First, they didn’t have to bowl to him. Second, he would willingly offer his services to be their batting coach. How often these very tail-enders would borrow his bat and go out to live his role.
Remember the one-wicket win over Australia at Mohali in 2010 when Laxman and Ishant Sharma added 81 runs for the ninth wicket. Ishant discovered his batting potential that afternoon. “Watching Laxman bat, I thought this was easy. Watching him, I also thought how I wish I had been a batsman!” Not just Ishant, the list includes Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Pragyan Ojha.
It is not easy to be a match-winner at any level. Laxman acquired this reputation at the international level. With ease at that! “He is fabulous,” was how once Kapil Dev had remarked. He confessed it would have been a challenge to bowl to an in-form Laxman. He had the time and skill to direct his shots. “On his day he could beat even 22 fielders and find the boundary,” as Zaheer Khan had rightly analysed during the course of a batting symphony by Laxman.
“The greatest innings ever played by an Indian still belongs to him,” remarked Bishan Singh Bedi. So well remembered! The 281 at the Eden Gardens in 2001 gave new life to Indian cricket and Sourav Ganguly. A pity, they let Laxman down in his hour of need!
In Laxman’s hurried retirement, Indian cricket has lost one of its best match-winner. The game will not be the same. Certainly not for the connoisseurs of artistic batsmanship; nor for the purists! Batsmen like Laxman just don’t come very often.