Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can

RAJU BHARATAN

IS it vis-a-vis 'Sachin and Wisden' that Rudyard Kipling came up with the sentiment: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"? When Sachin earlier failed to find a Test niche in the WISDEN 100, we were asked to watch for the one-day ratings to arrive. They did arrive, but Sachin did not - in Wisden's First 10 here! Truth to tell, it neither surprised nor troubled Indians to discover Sachin's name to be so Wisden-missing from the First ODI 10. For, justly or otherwise, Indians by then believed Sachin and Wisden to be as far apart as V. V. S. Laxman and Consistency.

Vividly to glimpse Kapil Dev to be ODI 4th in that Wisden First 10 - with his World Cup pathfinder knock of 175 (off 150 balls: 6 sixes: 17 fours) - came as no Sachin sop. For that Saturday, June 18, 1983 knock was Kapil's date with World Cup destiny, as the Haryana Hurricane Zimbabwe-lashed Tunbridge Wells in a style that brooked no Wisdenial. Against the same Zimbabwe did 'Nagpuritan' Tendulkar now record that 316-ball 176 (23 fours) as his 28th Test hundred in an effort, momentarily, to sink the ODI memory of this fresh Wisden affront. Indeed, in Wisden's now consigning Sachin to the faraway 23rd ODI slot we have the essence of the Mike Denness syndrome. A syndrome by which Indians perceive justice as not tele-seen to be done. That a total of four Sachin ODI knocks still features in the latest WISDEN 100 is cold comfort. Sachin, as the first to breast the 10,000-run ODI tape, simply had to be there in Wisden's First 10 here - as tele-envisioned by India and Indians. Not even West Indian Brian Lara could view it otherwise. So we just leave Sachin where he is now, odiously placed in Wisden, and move on to matters more germane to Indian cricket.

Matters like Sachin (176) carrying the India of Sourav (38) on his Wisden-shrugging shoulders while Laxman (13) crucially failed to deliver, yet again, in the Nagpur Test vs Zimbabwe. What really ails Laxman that he makes over to fresher Sanjay Bangar (100 - bat memorably in hand) the task specifically assigned to VVS (at No. 6) of easing the other-end burden on Sachin? What is the complex mindset by which Laxman at Nagpur grafted those 13 runs off 47 balls in a Test-norm no different from that ODI 26 off 53 balls proving his January 2002 Chennai undoing against Nasser Hussain's England? With the Nagpur let-down, Laxman frankly put his votaries in no moral position to think up yet another alibi for his quality bat's again failing to assert itself centrestage. Still let me stress the February 9 Sportstar issue I made of the fact that "you teach Laxman no lesson for the future by dropping him six feet down." The moment you make Laxman self-conscious about his specialist slot in the team his utility to India stands forfeited.

The selectors slyly let it be known that Laxman's ODI spot was up for grabs even as VVS stepped out to bat at Chennai. What you got from this virtuoso, in the pressure-cooker result, was that absurd 26 off 53 balls. In the same fatally defensive frame of mind did Laxman, misguidedly, approach his Test recall at Nagpur. Ray Price (68-18-182-5) is the dimension of spinner Laxman habitually puts to the Nizami sword in domestic cricket. Yet VVS here proceeded to X-Ray Price to the point of patting back half-volleys! The way VVS thus ventured to bat exactly the ill-suited way our selectors would initially have him do, you could almost see it coming. When a ball from Ray Price carried a bit of bounce and turn, Laxman (all tensed up) was unable to loosen the hold on his handle and ended up prodding the tamest of close-in catches.

I have only one point to make to our selectors here. No matter how they treat Laxman from hereon, they must call VVS aside and tell him that his place (as a super slip-catcher) is secure in the Indian team, five-day and one-day, only so long as he bats in his wonted anti-Aussie vein. Those 47 balls that Laxman negotiated like an automaton at Nagpur could have yielded VVS a quick-fire 30. Instead, Laxman battled (rather than batted) through that first Test in a mould diabolically designed to see him squeezed 'out' like a Nagpur orange. How could we continue to empathise with a Laxman who fails to divine that attack is the best form of defence in his Test-case? You felt saddened to view Virender Sehwag left out of the Indian eleven in the Nagpur Test. Yet you felt gladdened to see Laxman return to where he originally belonged at No. 6 - with that 59 in the March 2001 Eden Test vs Steve Waugh's Australia.

That 59 at No. 6 was the launching-pad for Laxman's internationally acclaimed 281 at No. 3 in the same Eden Test. Likewise could Laxman (at No. 6 in Nagpur) have given the free-stroking lie to his traducers. Nagpur saw Laxman enter the scene against the shattered Zimbos just when a few sharp shots from his blue blade would have given Sachin the second wind Tendulkar needed at a point when the Little Blaster was feeling a trifle fatigued. But Laxman "defended" his recall to No. 6 with a passion that was gloriously misplaced! No one could counsel a performer of Laxman's seasoning about what to do when - not after that Eden 281 had Steve Waugh "bracketing" VVS as a thoroughbred "potentially" striding in the same lane as Sachin. The intrinsic ability to destroy an international attack is valueless if Laxman is not able to unfold the shots adorning his quiver in the razor-keen competitive company of Sachin.

It is indeed time Laxman made up his Hamletian mind about whether to be or not to be at the wicket. Akin to not being at the wicket was the idiom in which VVS batted for those 13 indefensible runs in a contest he so abjectly turned into a Nagpur Test of nerves for himself. I say this because a Laxman, lost to us at this juncture, could be a world-class batsman banished for all time to come. Where Sachin is a "batter", Laxman is a batsman. This stylishly striking contrast, between Sachin and Laxman, is all that VVS has to bear in mind to reassert his pedigree as a touch player to the ball-caressing manner born.

After Nagpur, after Bangar, the challenge posed to Laxman's position by Virender Sehwag becomes a straight one. Even if Laxman loses out here, let our selectors be clear in their minds that it is only for now. For the six letters of Sehwag superimpose themselves on the six letters of Sachin, not on the six letters of Laxman. If Laxman came to be assessed by the Steve Waugh yardstick in Zimbabwe - as the ball there began to 'wobble' - so is Sehwag going to be litmus-tested during the 'movement' that the 2003 World Cup is sure to be during the hour in which it is slated to take place in South Africa. "Najafgarh Ka Sholay" they hail Sehwag as - at a time when Sachin continues to be "Sholay". As "Ramgarh Ka Sholay" Sehwag should not end up, given the proven longevity of Sachin! I make this point in the enlightened long-term interest of Sehwag. The best thing to happen to Veeru Sehwag was Mike Denness. That matchless referee came as the sobering influence at just the right maturing moment in Veeru's career.

Reflect upon how Veeru never looked back (at umpire or player) after that Denness dressing-down. Veeru just looked away from any provocation offered to him by anybody in the middle. The resultant toughening of mind and heart is what saw Veeru land his shots as one fit, if not to hold a candle to Sachin, at least to burn the candle at both ends! Sehwag, in short, has set a pace too hot even for a brown bomber like him to sustain. No way do I want Sehwag to sacrifice the sheer instinct by which Veeru's stroke production almost dovetails into his stroke selection. But being constantly compared to Sachin could lead to delusions of grandeur given the neo-icon imagery of Sehwag. Veeru would do well to note that the drop in Laxman's fortunes began with VVS's being proclaimed to be "almost as good as Tendulkar". There could be no more dangerous role-model in the world than Sachin - for Sehwag now as for Laxman then.

The gravamen of the critical charge against Laxman is that VVS goes for too many shots too soon. What Laxman's detractors overlook is that VVS is at home, even abroad, only when playing all his shots all at once. So is Sehwag no 'Vir', in the eyes of the mob, unless he is perennially calling the TV spots via his shots. Sehwag here should be zeroing in on his India-formative years witnessing him playing his shots from the word go when on tour in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. An ODI scoreline of 2 vs Zimbabwe, then a sequence of 11 not out, 4 & 2 vs the West Indies, put the screws on Sehwag where it came to India's touring Sri Lanka. There, scores of 0 vs New Zealand, 12 vs Sri Lanka, 33 vs New Zealand, 27 and, next, 0 vs Sri Lanka had Veeru standing all but marginalised. Then came that taste-the-thunder eye-opener 70-ball 100 vs New Zealand and the rest is story-book reading.

In the success story of Virender Sehwag is the answer to where, precisely, Laxman's failings lie. Where Sehwag (perhaps not as naturally gifted at the true international level as VVS) learnt from each setback, Laxman developed, almost into an art, espying third-eye light only at the end of the tunnel! You could no more equate Laxman with Sehwag than you could Sachin with VVS. Yet look at the way Sehwag moved up to opening while Laxman came nosediving back to No. 6. An ounce of pragmatism is worth a ton of talent in this game. Robust, rotund common sense is what Sehwag displayed, where the far more brainy Laxman just failed to think things out on the whetstone of international exposure after exposure.

Who would have ever expected the soft-speaking bat of Laxman to be challenged by the hard-headed approach of Sehwag? Veeru's advancing to pose a threat to a nimble-footed performer of Laxman's six-foot standing is a pointer to the fact that talent by itself helps little if you insist on keeping it latent. Was Nagpur an authentic view of the Laxman who chiselled 20 & 12; 59 & 281; 65 & 66; then 45, 51, 83, 11 & 101 against World Champion Australia? Where Laxman lost steadily in stature, Sachin (in the face of the Sehwag onslaught) retained his striking composure. To sum up the Sachin-Laxman interface tellingly we can take recourse to the 19th century poet Owen Meredith, who had observed: "Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can."