Batsman for all seasons

Venkat Sai Laxman has grown as a cricketer and as a person, acquiring cricketing wisdom and nicely blending it with his experience. Given his background, educational and cultural, and his pleasant demeanour, he should have been an obvious choice for captaincy, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

DEEP in his heart, he still feels the pain. The agony of having missed the last World Cup gnaws every time he walks to the middle. "It'll remain a lifelong anguish," he confesses. So, to silence his detractors, and to be at peace with himself, V. V. S. Laxman does what he knows the best — he makes his bat do the talking.

Time, they say, heals the most grievous of wounds. And this one was inflicted by some senseless forces that worked overtime in the Board rooms. Laxman, the man who changed the face of Indian cricket with an all-time great innings, a man known only to be selfless, was shattered. True to his character, he did not blame anyone for the damage caused to his career; and to his childhood ambition to play in the World Cup.

The captain did not even offer a word of sympathy. He was too engrossed in the `wealth' of talent surrounding him. India's march to the final drowned any suggestions of deceit in Laxman's exclusion from the team.

When judging Laxman, the `Man of the Series' against New Zealand, the Match Referee Ranjan Madugalle made this fascinating observation. "Laxman took batting to another level with his fluency under pressure." This was at Mohali. He battled to compile a century but failed to save the follow-on. Lack of application from the others and gross miscalculation by Laxman, too, who ought to have retained as much of the strike as possible. And then came the follow-on and a familiar stage for Laxman. He got down to business and saw the team through, this time ensuring a draw. And mind you, in the two innings, when most others struggled to occupy the crease, Laxman was authoritative. During his entire duration, there was just one appeal made against him, and that too a frustrated bat-pad shout towards the end. Amazing indeed. A very confident man now, Laxman described his feelings thus: "I've always loved challenges. My parents, brother, sister-in-law, my uncle (Baba Krishna Mohan) and my well wishers have kept me going. It's always good to have runs behind you. I've begun the season well and am looking forward to doing well in the one-dayers too."

When he arrived on the big stage, they thrust the job of opening the innings on him despite the knowledge that he would have been a priceless contributor in the middle-order. And then he was asked to open only when the attack was lethal — against Australia, Pakistan, South Africa. But he never protested because that is the way he has been brought up.

When an offer was made to Laxman to open the innings in Dhaka against Bangladesh in the latter's inaugural Test, he declined politely, having made up his mind on insisting for a place in the middle order. Not because he was unsure of his technique, but because he was far more comfortable and far more useful down the order.

But every time they tried to push him down, this affable artist hit back gently, but effectively. Laxman could not be ignored, for the sake of Indian cricket. When he hit that epic 281 at the Eden Gardens, one former cricketer flippantly remarked he would love to see Laxman repeat the performance. One has not heard a more uncharitable remark.

At 29, he is just about entering a phase when he can plan and dictate, than just sit in anxiety, waiting for his fate to be decided by men who collectively would not match Laxman's deeds. I remember Sachin Tendulkar describing Laxman as the "most reliable in all conditions." Like Rahul Dravid, a champion batsman on any surface. Laxman, as Kapil Dev remarked, shall always remain the "batsman for all seasons."

Let it be understood here that Laxman is an extraordinary batsman. You have to be special if you can drive a spinner even on turning tracks, and ensure the ball does not rise even a centimetre above the ground. "Breathtaking," as Tendulkar would often say.

Laxman grew up in the shadow of Mohammad Azharuddin. Critics made unwise comparisons between the two even though Laxman had an inimitable style. Just as Azharuddin had his own. They would spend long sessions, but rarely discussed cricket. Azharuddin was always keen to see Laxman develop his own personality.

And Laxman has grown as a cricketer and as a person, acquiring cricketing wisdom and nicely blending it with his experience. Given his background, educational and cultural, and his pleasant demeanour, he should have been an obvious choice for captaincy. Sunil Gavaskar has gone on record regarding Laxman's leadership qualities. He was said to be "captaincy" material. This was in 2001 when he led in a tour match against the Australians at Nagpur and received rave reviews for his performance. He had also led earlier in a tour match against Pakistan in 1999. But, sadly, Laxman was reduced to fighting for a place, his claims to captaincy not even a remote possibility.

The visibility factor counts a lot these days. They talk about Laxman making a comeback just because Test matches happen to be sparse when compared to the number of one-day internationals. And then Laxman does not endorse cool drinks, creams, cars, pens, televisions and chips on the small screen. He is not a star when compared to some colleagues of lesser calibre who have greater media presence. Recently, a group of cricketers met the Board to sort out the contracts issue. Among the topics discussed was graded payments to international cricketers and an increase in the pay packet for domestic players. The Board, one understands, was keen to guard the interests of the domestic players. The man best qualified, with an ideal amount of experience to deal with such matters, was Laxman. But he did not even figure in the group, which included Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, players supposed to speak for the domestic cricketers.

Laxman has been one of the few international cricketers always keen to play domestic cricket. One reason possibly could be that he is perpetually on trial. But Laxman never lost an opportunity to play domestic cricket, and also made it a point to succeed. The late M. L. Jaisimha taught Laxman the importance of playing matches, domestic or otherwise, to develop his game. "He taught me the passion for cricket. He encouraged and motivated me a lot. It was his confidence in me that really meant a lot to me. His knowledge was amazing and I miss him today when I look forward to raising my level," said an emotional Laxman. Now for those who have suddenly noticed that Laxman is occupying the crease more. Please take a peep into the past and you shall see that Laxman has four double centuries and three triple centuries in first-class cricket. In 1999-00, he hit 10 centuries in as many first-class matches. And they could have come about only by an occupation of the crease.

As for his international record, for those who observe that Laxman is very good on Indian pitches, nothing can be more illuminating than his record on the last trip to the West Indies when he made 474 at an average of 79.00, his knocks of 69 not out and 74 setting up India's only Test win of the tour at Port of Spain. He was `Man of the Match'. His 167 at Sydney in 1999-00 was a rare gem. His 89 at Port of Elizabeth the next year, helping India avoid the follow-on on a lively track, was a memorable effort. His aggregate of 503 at an average of 89 at home against Australia was unforgettable, and unmatched in terms of class and quality of batting. Yet, Laxman has to keep proving his credentials. For those who believe in statistics, even though they surely don't reflect the truth in Laxman's case, let it be recorded that his Test average stands at 44.26 at the end of the recent series against New Zealand. His Test average after that grand show of 281 was 56.74. Yet, he is kept under pressure to earn a place in the team. Not anymore one hopes. Now that his place in the middle-order is secure, Laxman does not reflect on the past. "What's the point? Even recently, I never said I would like to open the innings, if required. I am comfortable in the middle-order where I feel I can contribute better. I don't want to be branded a non-regular opener. I have never been an opener and I don't aspire to be one. Batting at number six is where I belong. I've been in and out. Quite unwanted. I developed my mental resolve immensely during the time I missed the World Cup and was feeling very low. I've prepared myself well for the season. I've watched a lot of my matches and analysed and worked on my game. I've improved my shot-selection. I know I won't get many boundary balls when I walk in at number six. I'm keen to build on my strong points and to tell you honestly, I'm pleased with the way I shaped against New Zealand in the Tests. I could contribute consistently and that to me is a crucial point."

He draws his strength from his spiritual guide, the Bhagwad Gita. Laxman, with utmost humility, is looking forward to Australia, "the biggest tour of all." He wants to shine in the most exacting of circumstances.