A Very, Very Special human being

Laxman is an old fashioned charmer, who can caress the ball into the open spaces with strokes of delicate beauty, writes S. DINAKAR.

THE icy winds from Hawke Bay cut across the expressway lining the beach, whistled past a stretch of pine trees and swept into McLean Park. It was a cold summer morning in Napier and in the largely unprotected Press box, journalists keying into laptops found their fingers turning numb.

Some rushed back to fetch extra covering of the woollen kind from their hotels, while a few stayed on, amid the overwhelming chillness, in the hope that sunshine would finally pierce through those dense layers of cloud.

The sky did open out into a vast expanse of blue in the afternoon and the hill facing us, that was bathed in brilliant light, seemed inviting. Soon we were on the opposite side of the quaint Oval.

The three-day duel between India and the Central Districts — the only tour game ahead of the two-Test series in 2002 — was meandering towards a tame finish and with little left in the proceedings, the talk, predictably, revolved around cricket and cricketers.

"Laxman is God's child, totally uncorrupted by fame and success," remarked a fellow scribe.

There are certain words that drift into the realm of nothingness to be eminently forgotten. And some that set you thinking long after they are spoken out. The difference between the two, often, might just be subtle.

One stopped briefly and reflected. These were strong words, but only meant to be taken in the context of how a sportsperson reacted to success. Whether fame and fortune changed him?

Was Laxman deserving of such high praise?

Specific instances flashed before mind's eye. Like when the Hyderabad batsman was woken up on a March morning in Chennai three years ago for an interview, and still spoke without any discomfort, his face a picture of modesty.

He had arrived in the city a triumphant hero, having caused the single biggest Test turnaround in Indian cricketing history. Laxman's immortal 281 in Kolkata had the cricketing world in a tizzy for its sheer magnificence and enormity in a seemingly impossible situation, constructed at the expense of the all-conquering Australia.

Yet, as he patiently answered questions from The Sportstar, not even a hint of a sense of achievement, that afterglow of an extraordinary deed, was visible. In his greatest hour of glory, Laxman was the very antithesis of a celebrity.

Was Laxman aware of his enormous gifts? Was he conscious of his stature in the contemporary scenario? There are times when he appears oblivious of his own ability.

It was in the restaurant of Colombo's Taj Samudra during the tour of Sri Lanka in 2001, that Laxman, when reminded of his epic that ambushed Steve Waugh's men even as he was sipping juice and watching the Australian bowlers torment the Englishmen on the giant screen, would reply "They are all great bowlers. Aren't they?" This would be followed by a shrug and a blissfully shy smile.

He is an old fashioned charmer, who can caress the ball into the open spaces with strokes of delicate beauty, yet may not be able to close out endorsement deals with the same felicity.

Lesser cricketers appear in more commercials. When on song, Laxman provides infinitely more joy and years fall away as he conjures shots wrapped in elegance, coated in mystique, and touched by genius.

He is mortal and has his failings. There have been occasions when his footwork has been ordinary and when Laxman suffered one of his worst slumps of his career this season, this aspect of his cricket was put under the scanner.

In ODI cricket's domain, Laxman often finds himself unwanted. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Then again, Laxman would not deny the chinks. During the practice session ahead of the decider in Rawalpindi last year, the tall Hyderabadi waved away the advancing flame-eyed security guard as yours truly approached him for a brief chat after he had finished his batting stint.

Laxman was aware that the question to be hurled at him might be a difficult one in nature — his form was indifferent and he had been cleaned up by an Umar Gul delivery that straightened after being delivered from wide of the crease in Lahore.

There was a feeling that Laxman was getting caught out at the crease, not moving forward to counter the movement. When asked the same, even as the sun beat down mercilessly, and sweat dripped off his forehead, Laxman's response was shockingly honest. "Yes, I realise this. I am trying to get on to the front foot."

He could so easily have ducked the question, or avoided it altogether by looking the other way when the guards formed a barrier. He did neither. There is a basic honesty in the man that shines bright. A sensitive, caring person, Laxman is also the kind who is not ruffled by criticism. Irrespective of what had been written about him, a warm, wide grin would welcome you the next morning.

He told The Sportstar, the other day, "You are not here for adulation. How many receive a chance to play for the country? Luckily I had a good upbringing. Values were taught to me early. You should never forget where you came from. More than education it is the upbringing that matters. Mine is a simple middle-class upbringing. Despite being educated if you cannot handle success or failure, it doesn't matter how educated you are."

Perhaps the only occasion when he appeared a lonely, forlorn figure, with his otherwise pleasant exterior unable to mask the pain and a feeling of being let down was on the tour of New Zealand in 2002-2003. When the cricket caravan moved to Queenstown, that paradise on earth, for the fourth ODI of the seven-match series, Laxman seemed shattered by the fact that he would miss out on the World Cup again.

Participating in the World Cup had been among his major dreams — he is yet to figure in the leading limited overs competition — and there he was in the picturesque resort town of the Kiwi South island, attempting to quell the storms raging in his mind.

When he stroked so majestically in Australia later in the year, the extent of that selectorial blunder became evident — Laxman waltzed in both forms of the game, slicing it open with rare skill rather that blow it away with power.

NOW to Laxman's methods with the willow. Since he judges the length early, he seems to possess so much time to play the ball. Technically, he is comfortable with extra bounce. He stands tall and strikes the ball effortlessly off the back-foot, driving or whipping it, and does not mind the extra pace; when Shoaib Akhar fired in the quickest delivery of the series in the Rawalpindi Test, the ball disappeared faster past the cover boundary ropes off Laxman's rapier-like blade.

It is when there is lateral movement for the pacemen that he enters a zone of uncertainty tending to play away from the body; it is so essential for him to get his left foot moving. There is also a view that his knee, scarred by past injury, is hampering his movement.

Given his wealth of strokes and exquisite timing, Laxman's returns of 3795 runs from 61 Tests at 43.12 is a trifle disappointing. Still only 30, he can work on this shortcoming; Laxman has at least five years of international cricket left.

The second half of 2004 was forgettable for Laxman and the Australians did operate cleverly at the right-hander, denying him the length or the width and seaming the ball away from around the off-stump.

His confidence dented, Laxman, who had on-driven Shane Warne with effortless ease — hitting against sharp leg-spin is perhaps the toughest shot in the cricketing manual — in the past, was now succumbing to long hops from the Aussie. The middle-order batsman's shot-selection came under scrutiny.

There were flashes of brilliance though. Laxman's half-century on a minefield of a surface in Mumbai was typically match-winning, though the effort arrived in a dead rubber game against Australia.

His cameo at the Eden Gardens when the Indians were seeking to gather runs at a fast clip to put the Proteas under pressure had the India coach John Wright raving over Laxman's unselfish quality. He has blossomed into a fine slip catcher, with an amalgam of reflexes, anticipation and safe hands. He also contributes to the team with his reading of the game. In ODI cricket's domain, he often finds himself unwanted. In 2004, he carved a series-clinching hundred in Lahore, the most valuable ODI innings by an Indian batsman during the year. He was reasonably consistent but found himself omitted from the Indian one-day squad for the series in Bangladesh. For once, Laxman could not hold back his anger.

Probably, he is no `God's child'. But then, in an era where the real and the unreal blend almost seamlessly, where artificiality often prevails over genuineness, Laxman remains a very, very, special human being. And... a tremendous batsman in that wristy Hyderabadi way.