Dropping a clanger called Laxman

RAJU BHARATAN

IS Chandu Chairman or Hangman of Selectors? Hang it, Chandu Borde it was who spearheaded the selection committee that jettisoned Sunil Gavaskar as sensationally from India's one-day eleven, at the beginning of September 1986, as it did Venkatasai Laxman by the end of January 2002! The white man's Wisden burden thus sat none too lightly on Laxman as he lost on the English swings what he made on the Aussie roundabouts. That VVS should have so gone the Sunny way is ironic when, in tele-hindsight, you view Laxman as the one who so stupendously lowered the 17-year-old Gavaskar mast of 236 not out with that euphoric Eden Test 281.

What were the extraordinary circumstances in which Chandu Borde dropped that late-1986 Sunny clanger? I was there at the Bangalore press meet where Chandu articulated his point of view. "Purely as an experiment with the 1987 World Cup a year away," contended Borde, he and his co-ejectors had decided to ease out Sunil from the first two September 1986 ODIs against Allan Border's Australia. Did Laxman fall from one-day grace in a similarly "experimental" amber light? It could (as in Sunil's case) be argued that even such a class act as VVS was proving something of an athletic misfit in India's 2002 neo-one-day outfit. Consecutive ODI scores of 18 vs the West Indies at Harare; then (at Colombo) 17 vs Sri Lanka; 1 vs New Zealand; 87 not out vs Sri Lanka; 10 vs Sri Lanka; 0 vs New Zealand; and 37 vs Sri Lanka; next: 15 vs Kenya at Paarl; 5 vs South Africa at Durban; and now (against Nasser Hussain's England) 25 at Kolkata; 3 at Cuttack; and 26 at Chennai do suggest that consistency is the first casualty in Laxman's willowy wizardry. A quality player whose attitude is still to match his aptitude.

But the antidote is not to add insult to knee injury by putting Laxman under pressure to perform all over again. For Laxman is a creature of impulse, it is when Sachin's India is 402 behind Steve Waugh's Australia (on January 4, 2000 in the Sydney Test) or when Sourav's India is 274 behind that champion nation (on March 20 2001 in the Eden Test) that "TVVS" produces, out of the blue, all-time knocks of 167 and 281. That 167 off 198 balls (in an Indian total of 258 for 8) abides as a gem studded with 27 fours and a five. While that 281 off 452 balls (spanning 10-and-a-half hours) with 44 fours had a stroke sampler of Mark Waugh's bloodlines wondering if he had ever viewed anything better in the Test theatre. The Sydney 167 came from Laxman's high-octane Ansett blade when he stood psyche-shatteringly dropped (as now) from India's one-day team. Still, as one still young and eligible enough to "play the field", Laxman revealed a roving Hyderabadi eye in angularly stroking his way to 167. While, in the chanceless happening that was the Eden 281, Laxman so found his Shane Warne feet as never to look like getting out.

What emerges from all this is that the one-day setting is somewhat constricting for a performer of Laxman's laidback range and depth. VVS is no hit-and-run artist, he needs mental space to settle. But hasn't he been given enough "space of mind" by now? Such rational reasoning is likely to be lost on Laxman with whom to strike is to think! But the more he tries to think things out (as in that 26 off 53 balls in the Chennai ODI), the more fallible Lax becomes. Granted the quicksilver blade of Laxman has taken too long to "strike" the golden one-day mean. Yet Laxman's inherent ability to destroy an international attack remains no less potent than what we glimpse in Sachin. It is in this prism you teach Laxman no lesson for the future by dropping him six feet down. Laxman did not learn from being a "dropout" before. He will not now. You do not set a yardstick for Laxman and ask him to measure up. You just let him be. "To be or not to be" is a dilemma you let Laxman himself resolve as the Hamlet of Indian Cricket. Keep out Laxman now and kiss good-bye to the World Cup that Kapil Dev held up as champagne to his lips.

Having said that, Chandu Borde and his cohorts might well have had a stronger caveat for dropping a bombshell, in Laxman, than they did in the instance of Sunny come September 1986. For Sunil Gavaskar and Krish Srikkanth, by then, represented India's Corsican connection. Indeed, Sunny had fully justified snatching back India's one-day opening mantle from Champion of Champions Ravi Shastri with a sequence (in the early-1986 World Series Cup) of 27, 5, 59, 9, 92 not out, 77, 72, 1 & 11, going in with Srikkanth. The three times Ravi here got a look-in as WSC opener (when Sunny was injured) that springy all-rounder could raise contributions of but 6, 2 & 8. Sunny therefore cosily returned to his one-day opening spot with 0, 71 & 92 in India's three matches of the April 1986 Austral-Asia Cup at Sharjah.

Followed the watershed series in England that saw Kapil Dev's India grip, 2-0, the three-Test rubber. In the two ODIs during that 1986 English summer of content, Sunny continued to don his open "apology for a helmet" with scores of 65 & 4. As Kapil Dev's India therefore returned resurgent home in the first week of September 1986, there could be no doubt about Sunny's being mindset on opening with Srikkanth right into the 1987 World Cup. This precisely was the hazy hour in which "Freemason" Borde dropped the Sunny Bangalore brick. Consternation all over India! So much so that S. Sriraman, as the Cricket Board President then, had discreetly to step in to "persuade" Borde & Co to bring back Sunil G as "an additional member" of India's one-day team for those first two ODIs. And Sunil vindicated Sriraman by registering 26 in the Jaipur ODI and 52 in the Srinagar ODI.

That first 26 by Sunil saw the Little Mastermind work as single-mindedly at the Jaipur job as did Laxman on the Chepauk task during the Friday of January 25 for his 26 vs Nasser Hussain's England. No doubt Laxman was all over the Matthew Hoggard shop, after that, in being flamboyantly bowled, playing the "drop-shot". The selectors had compelled Lax to craft and graft to a point (almost predictably) of ensuring a post-25 snap in this virtuoso's concentration! Without doubt Laxman by then had failed to reproduce the Chepauk 65-&-66 art form by which he had gone on to sculpt 45, 51, 83, 11 & 101 in the five ODIs against Steve Waugh's Australia. But was the answer to this to show VVS the door behind which Chandu Borde and his bandwagon debated the fall of Laxman? The fact that 25-30 had become Laxman's ODI staple cut-off mark was sad indeed. If Laxman also missed two crucial slip chances in the Cuttack ODI, it merely proved that VVS is but human - that he is not the catching-batting superman viewers now expect him to be all the time. It is okay for a Sachin to play an extravagant shot and be bowled through the wicket-gate by Andrew Flintoff. But not for a Laxman (26) to be similarly vulnerable after 52 balls spent in playing a game totally antithetic to his mental make-up.

The Chepauk 26 at least showed that the agonising Laxman had got the "message" and was trying his darnedest to deliver. Yet expecting Laxman simply to drop anchor is like asking G. R. Visvanath to play firm through and through. Remember Visvanath initially battling for runs in the 1972-73 season against Tony Lewis' England? Recall Vish's scores of 27 & 3 in the Kotla Test; 3 & 34 in the Eden Test; 37 & 0 in the Chepauk Test? Followed by 25 on the second day of the Green Park Test. Rewind to how Visvanath was then told by our myopic selectors that he was out of the India eleven for the final Brabourne Stadium Test - if he "yet again failed to cross 50" in the second Kanpur stanza! Visvanath's counter was to save the bacon for Wadekar's India (on the final day of that Kanpur Test) with a pedigree 75 not out. A pearl that was but the dress rehearsal for vintage Visvanath knocks of 113 & 48 in the Brabourne Stadium Test.

The burden of the classic song is that you could no more ask Visvanath to "conform" than you could expect Laxman to do so now. If Visvanath had conformed, where was the niche for Gavaskar in the Indian team? By the same token, let technician Rahul now return to the one-day eleven to correct the chronic instability that has crept into India's stroke-happy middle. But let Dravid (as a world-classy performer) be ultra-particular to rotate the strike - so as to ensure that Sachin, Sourav and Laxman set the attacking tone for Sehwag, Mongia or Badani. Now that the Laxman one-day deed is done, let us not make the cardinal mistake of slotting VVS as "purely" a Test performer. Laxman's one-day quandary has been his style being cramped by that knee injury. Now, after an enforced three-match lay-off, Lax should be back in full flower. For not merely the two Tests but also for the five ODIs against Zimbabwe.

After the dizzying 2-1 Test triumph over Australia followed by that seesaw 2-3 ODI loss to Steve Waugh's team, we underestimated Zimbabwe. Only to pay the supreme penalty against an even weaker West Indies team during the Saturday afternoon of July 7 2001 (at Harare) in the Coca-Cola Cup tri-series final surrendered in a photo finish (by 16 runs). Laxman (with 18 off 22 balls: 3 fours)) then gingerly returned to India's one-day team. So must he now be back as a full-fledged member of the Indian squad. Kudos to Kumble for leading India the victorious way Anil did in the needle Chepauk one-day encounter vs England. But let us never forget that neither Anil, nor Sourav, nor Rahul, nor Srinath, nor even Sachin, is going to get any younger by the time the 2003 World Cup materialises in South Africa. Not one of the five, by now, is an investment for the future. Not even Sachin - as he is called upon to cross World Cup swords, one last time, with Brian Lara. Laxman alone (among our stalwarts) would still be under 30 by the time our World Cup is full to the brim. So that Laxman, potentially, could be Indian captaincy material if, as a thoroughbred, VVS is given his head, afresh, here and now. For our cricket mentors to be dismissive of the only Indian approaching the international integrity of Sachin in stroke production would merely be to uphold the Arthur Conan Doyle maxim - that selectorial "mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself"