Killing them softly

K.R. DEEPAK

V. V. S. Laxman is not quite the archetypal fighter. He is gentle, soft spoken and a man of pleasant demeanour. Yet, in times of adversity, the stylish, sinuous middle-order batsman has shown that he can be a doughty fighter and a real match-winner. By S. Dinakar.

The gentle V. V. S. Laxman has steel in his bones. Beneath his pleasant, often smiling, exterior lurks a fierce competitor who orchestrates astonishing turnarounds. Unlike some of the famous fighters of the modern era, he is not a fist-clenching or a chest-thumping cricketer with sharp words.

Laxman's body language gives little away yet his combative instincts surface during moments of adversity.

Talent, focus and energy are channelled in a compelling fashion by Laxman. His simmering aggression is hardly visible to those around him; his equanimity in troubled times is the driving force as he creates timeless edifices.

The 36-year-old batsman's game-clinching 96 on a seaming track with bounce at Kingsmead in the second Test showcased his nerve and skill. Where other batsmen struggled, the gifted Laxman pierced the field with timing and precision. These match-winners are a precious breed.

Class act... Gundappa Viswanath in full flow against the West Indies. Among the Indians, the little master has the next best average after Laxman in victorious second innings knocks - he has 767 runs in 18 winning Tests at 54.78.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

A whiff of romance and a delightful old world charm encapsulate his batting. This smooth-stroker could have eased into the ambience of the 50s or the 60s, lifting the spirits of the audience on green, quaint arenas with elegance of the classical variety and impeccable demeanour. But then, if anyone expected this seemingly laidback cricketer to be a misfit in the contemporary age, he was mistaken. Laxman relishes the sniff of a combat.

Incredibly, he wears the cloak of a match-winner in testing situations without forsaking his style and grace. Laxman brush strokes the canvas with colours that celebrate both exquisite batsmanship and the spirit of the game. It is a very tough act. He is often under-rated and unsung but this does not diminish Laxman's value to the team or the respect he gets from his team-mates. His second innings exploits tell the tale.

In as many as 31 Indian victories, Laxman has contributed 1217 second-innings runs, topping the averages at a sensational 67.61. He can absorb pressure, inspire partners, disrupt opposition plans and create a path to victory for his side even as the pitch deteriorates and close catchers surround the bat. Second innings heroics demand belief, craft, flair and stamina. As the contest wears on, the mind could get jaded and the body tired. The resilient Laxman, though, saves his best for the last.

“He reminds me of Gundappa Viswanath, who was a genial cricketer and a match-winner. I was a great admirer of Viswanath. Laxman's efforts this year in difficult situations have been awesome,” said the chairman of the National selection committee, Krishnamachari Srikkanth.

Interestingly, Viswanath too was a class act in the second innings. In fact, among the Indians, the little master has the next best average after Laxman in victorious second innings knocks — he has 767 runs in 18 winning Tests at 54.78.

The rescue act. With tail-ender Harbhajan Singh (right) for company, Laxman steered India to safety in the Motera Test against New Zealand in November 2010. With the Kiwi paceman, Chris Martin, making deep inroads, India was precariously placed at 15 for five in its second innings.-K.R. DEEPAK

Much like Viswanath, Laxman can adapt to different conditions, raise the bar for himself and his team. His mental strength — he is extremely hard to break — is backed by the batting attributes of a natural.

Laxman's gem in Durban highlighted his ability to get on top of the bounce; a critical aspect of batting on the juicy South African tracks against the menacing pace combination of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. On some occasions he played with soft hands, and on a few other he cut, pulled, or drove.

The right-hander's back-foot play is solid; he rarely gets ruffled by the extra lift. He picks the length early but can play the ball late, giving himself a few milliseconds more time to manoeuvre the ball. This explains Laxman's ability to find the gaps on both sides; he is a tremendous boundary hitter.

Indeed, Laxman is a difficult batsman to bowl to since he can find the ropes with both vertical and horizontal bat strokes; his balanced and relaxed stance followed by lovely downswing are contributing factors.

And Laxman mixes his game cleverly by manipulating the ball and the strike with wristy strokeplay, coaxing the ball for singles or twos. His ability to find the fence and rotate the strike unsettled the Aussie bowlers in the humdinger at Mohali; his match-winning unbeaten 73 consumed just 79 deliveries.

Unable to stem the flow of runs, the opposition finds it hard to exert pressure when Laxman controls the game. And the contest often witnesses a momentum shift.

Not too many batsmen comprehend the flow of a game as well as Laxman does. He is alert to the changing hues as the match develops and can think ahead of the opposition. This facet of his cricket is reflected in the manner he bats with the tail, forging partnerships and altering scripts in the often decisive second innings.

Rahul Dravid, Laxman's great partner in the middle and friend, once said, “He is a batsman with exceptional ability. But he remains a good student of the game. And he is a quality human being.”

This has been a year where Laxman has conquered peaks, transporting himself to what professional sportspersons call ‘The Zone.' Bothered by back spasms, he willed himself on, enduring severe pain during his vital innings at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium and Mohali. Laxman conjured epics.

The soft-spoken batsman's 103 not out on the fifth day as India successfully pursued 257 to square the series in third Test against Sri Lanka at the historic P. Sara ground in Colombo was the innings of a wizard. The surface encouraged spinners — there were occasions when off-spinner Suraj Randiv got the ball to turn and bounce — but Laxman's reading of the length and judgment were spot on. He defended with soft hands, drove gloriously through covers and essayed rapier-like flicks.

And with Kiwi paceman Chris Martin making deep inroads in Ahmedabad, India was on a disastrous 15 for five in its second innings. Laxman, with his diligent 91, played a pivotal role and, along with the feisty Harbhajan Singh, helped India save the Test.

Laxman's ethereal 96 at Kingsmead will not be clouded by the mists of time. While Laxman strikes the ball from the sweet portion of his willow, he also has a wonderful sense of timing his memorable innings when his team is in distress.

To his credit, Laxman, conjuring up classics, has 1081 Test runs at 54.05 on the bouncy Australian tracks. Given that Laxman, on occasions, can be lazy in moving his front foot across while coping with swing, his average of 44.88 in England is not to be scoffed at. His away record of 4397 runs in 66 Tests at 45.69 is a laudable one.

In a formidable line-up that includes Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, Laxman has his own identity. The eventful 14-year-old career endures; in fact, it has picked up steam.