Very, very special knock

Mission accomplished... V. V. S. Laxman is congratulated by his runner Suresh Raina and Pragyan Ojha after the victory.-PICS K.R. DEEPAK

Laxman did what comes naturally to him: play the defining innings when under the most pressure; force on the viewer the illusion of magic; subject Australia to the force of his will. S. Ram Mahesh reports.

On the night before the final day, Ricky Ponting was beset with the bother all captains are forced to endure: a contemplation of what might happen the next day, glory or despair? Prophetically, his thoughts turned to V. V. S. Laxman. It didn't appear to matter that his bowlers, principally Ben Hilfenhaus, had reduced India, chasing 216, to 55 for four; or that Laxman had made no more than a brief appearance at No. 10 in the first innings, severely restricted by spasms of the lower back. “I was having dinner with a couple of guys,” Ponting would say after the first Test had ended, “and I told them that he was dangerous, almost like a wounded player batting lower down. I felt he'd make a big contribution and that's how it turned out.”

Laxman did what comes naturally to him: play the defining innings when under the most pressure; force on the viewer the illusion of magic; subject Australia to the force of his will. “How can someone so nice cause so much pain?” wondered an Australian after the game, but he was smiling to himself, so it couldn't have been too bad. Australia's cricketers weren't smiling though. Laxman's unconquered 73 will go down as one of the greatest non-century innings, and while it was slightly less than a fourth of his immortal 281, it shook Ponting even more. “I was quite delirious after the Kolkata Test, spending what seemed like four days in the field, so I don't remember much, but this hurts more. We're just bitterly disappointed.”

Laxman was abetted in The Great Escape by Ishant Sharma, who found redemption during the Test. The tall fast-bowler looked anything like the formidable fast-man he can be in the first innings, and when he hobbled off with a knee injury, his cup of woes overflowed. But he showed his resilience by batting for an hour and 12 minutes as night-watchman in India's first-innings. Then, given the ball just before lunch on the fourth day, he extracted Shane Watson, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke to swing the match India's way. Just as heroic as his bowling — he was running in despite pain — was his role in the ninth-wicket partnership with Laxman that took India from 124 for eight to within 11 runs for victory.

The Test had many who influenced it: Zaheer Khan's eight wickets won him the Man of the Match; Sachin Tendulkar made 98 in the first innings and 38 in the second; Hilfenhaus nearly won it for Australia on the fourth evening and Bollinger did the same before leaving the field with a strained abdomen on the fifth morning; Watson threatened to put the match beyond India twice, with dissimilar innings, a century and a half-century no less; Tim Paine, the former Brad Haddin understudy, showed he could handle the demands of the centre-stage, with bat at least; Mitchell Johnson, with both bat and ball, shaped a day by himself; Suresh Raina's 86 in the first-innings moved the game along, but his ground-cricket, his fielding to run Ponting out and his running between the wickets for Laxman, was just as important.

Well done mate...Harbhajan Singh shakes hands with Zaheer Khan at the end of Australia's second innings. Zaheer, who completed 250 wickets in Test cricket, was later named Man of the Match.-

It was quite surprising that so many quality performances occurred on a pitch that cricketers from both sides described as one difficult to get in on as a batsman and just as difficult to take wickets on. Another odd aspect of the match was the number of mistakes committed, from both sides and in all departments.

Yet despite the nature of the wicket and the preponderance of errors, the first Test achieved greatness. The greatest Tests tell grand and noble stories, hooking the viewer through plot and sub-plot, revealing the character of the men involved in combat, building tension till the denouement, which is an explosion of emotion.

“This was one of the greatest and most exciting Test matches I've been part of,” said Ponting. “And I've played over 150 of them. It's how I'd like to see Test cricket being played.” His counterpart, M. S. Dhoni, who seems impermeable to anxiety, conceded that it had set the heart racing. Zaheer, who sat watching the final stages with a poker face, said, “We were all nervous, I was very nervous, but we were trying not to show it.”

Fortunately, Laxman is the master of such moments; pressure, he says, releases his best. He once told Sportstar that he didn't know why — it just happened. “People around me sense it, but I don't know how it happens, how I enter that zone,” he said. “But I know that nothing bothers me in that zone, I'm not thinking of anything. I just see the ball.”

For the second time in two Tests, Laxman guided India to a target of over 200 in the fourth innings. His performance against Sri Lanka at the P. Sara Oval in August was only the 63rd instance in 1972 Tests of a match-winning century in the fourth innings. His half-century in Mohali brought up India's ninth win over Australia during Laxman's time — only in one of those wins, in Mohali, incidentally, in 2008, has this remarkable man not made at least a half-century.

THE SCORES

First Test, Mohali, October 1-5, 2010. India won by one wicket.

Australia — 1st innings: S. Watson c Gambhir b Harbhajan 126; S. Katich lbw b Zaheer 6; R. Ponting (run out) 71; M. Clarke c Dravid b Harbhajan 14; M. Hussey lbw b Zaheer 17; M. North b Zaheer 0; T. Paine c Laxman b Zaheer 92; M. Johnson c Dhoni b Zaheer 47; N. Hauritz c Gambhir b Harbhajan 9; B. Hilfenhaus (not out) 20; D. Bollinger c Ishant b Ojha 0; Extras (b-4, lb-9, nb-13) 26. Total: 428.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-154, 3-172, 4-218, 5-222, 6-275, 7-357, 8-373, 9-427.

India bowling: Zaheer 30-7-94-5; Ishant 11.4-1-71-0; Ojha 51.4-16-113-1; Harbhajan 49-12-114-3; Sehwag 9.2-1-23-0.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir lbw b Johnson 25; V. Sehwag c Clarke b Johnson 59; R. Dravid c Paine b Bollinger 77; Ishant Sharma b Bollinger 18; S. Tendulkar lbw b North 98; S. Raina lbw b Johnson 86; M. Dhoni c Watson b Johnson 14; Harbhajan Singh c Paine b Johnson 0; Zaheer Khan b Hauritz 6; V. V. S. Laxman c Clarke b Hauritz 2; P. Ojha (not out) 0; Extras (b-5, lb-13, w-1, nb-1) 20. Total: 405.

Fall of wickets: 1-81, 2-106, 3-151, 4-230, 5-354, 6-382, 7-382, 8-399, 9-401.

Australia bowling: Hilfenhaus 25-2-100-0; Bollinger 16-2-49-2; Johnson 20-5-64-5; Hauritz 29.1-4-116-2; Watson 6-0-19-0; North 12-3-39-1.

Australia — 2nd innings: S. Watson b Ishant 56; S. Katich c Dhoni b Ojha 37; R. Ponting c Raina b Ishant 4; M. Clarke c Dhoni b Ishant 4; M. Hussey lbw b Harbhajan 28; M. North c sub b Harbhajan 10; T. Paine c sub b Ojha 9; M. Johnson c Dhoni b Zaheer 3; N. Hauritz b Zaheer 9; B. Hilfenhaus b Zaheer 6; D. Bollinger (not out) 5; Extras (b-12, lb-4, nb-5) 21. Total: 192.

Fall of wickets: 1-87, 2-91, 3-96, 4-138, 5-154, 6-165, 7-165, 8-170, 9-183.

India bowling: Zaheer 11.5-1-43-3; Ishant 9-2-34-3; Harbhajan 23-7-40-2; Ojha 17-1-59-2.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir lbw b Hilfenhaus 0; V. Sehwag c Hussey b Hilfenhaus 17; R. Dravid c Paine b Bollinger 13; S. Tendulkar c Hussey b Bollinger 38; S. Raina c North b Hilfenhaus 0; Zaheer Khan c Clarke b Hauritz 10; V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 73; M. Dhoni (run out) 2; Harbhajan Singh c Ponting b Bollinger 2; Ishant Sharma lbw b Hilfenhaus 31; P. Ojha (not out) 5; Extras (b-10, lb-8, w-6, nb-1) 25. Total (for nine wkts.) 216.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-31, 3-48, 4-48, 5-76, 6-119, 7-122, 8-124, 9-205.

Australia bowling: Hilfenhaus 19-3-57-4; Bollinger 8-0-32-3; Johnson 16.4-2-50-0; Hauritz 9-1-45-1; North 4-0-8-0; Watson 2-0-6-0.