For the second innings man, it's draw of stumps

Stadiums will no longer be swayed by Laxman's batting.-H. SATISH

Laxman will be missed, by the fan, by the connoisseur, but mostly by his team. His teammates have lost their nicest, most generous mate, the perfect man to go to battle or dinner with, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

It’s important we celebrate V.V.S. Laxman. For, in his gentle, warmly persuasive manner, he showed us during his career that it’s possible to be a winner of the highest order without being a punk; that artistry is transcendent, but it’s also functional; that being unique isn’t at odds with being part of the collective and ambitions are best pursued when they align with those of the team. With Laxman’s exit from Test cricket, India will be without the rarest of batsmen.

Opponents continue to be in awe of Sachin Tendulkar. They respected Rahul Dravid. Some are genuinely afraid of Virender Sehwag, wary of how quickly he can kill a game. No one, however, evoked the dread — the sinking feeling that somehow a position of strength is going to be turned — that Laxman, trusted with a lost cause, did.

This ability to find, under the most severe pressure, the stirring, ultimately devastating response has been a recurrent theme in Laxman’s career. It’s why he should be judged not merely by his numbers, but also by his impact.

Statistically, Laxman falls short of greatness — 8781 runs, 17 centuries, and an average of 45.97 are worthy without being exceptional. And years down the line, it won’t be remembered that he batted a lot at five and six with the tail for company or that he was seldom allowed to feel settled about his place in the team or that he rarely feasted on the weak.

Runs are runs, but some are finer, more vital than others, and Laxman specialised in scoring these. No modern-day innings, for instance, has the weight his 281 against Australia in Kolkata does: it was the most significant act of rebellion against the ruling empire; India’s rise to the top of Test cricket can be traced back to that day in 2001. Such an effort would have been the work of a lifetime for most batsmen. Not for Laxman, who was such an adept at the defining knock in the second innings that he produced it with freakish regularity. In 2010 alone, he had an unbeaten 103 in Sri Lanka, an undefeated 73 on painkilling injections against Australia in Mohali, and 96 against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, and the moving, bouncing ball in Durban: each brought a Test win. In between, he saved a match against New Zealand.

Laxman has always been about making the runs when his team most needed it. His 51 in the second innings of his debut Test, against Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers on a track of duplicitous bounce, set up a win.

The Houdini with the match-winning touch... Laxman celebrates with Pragyan Ojha after piloting India to a nine-wicket victory.-K.R. DEEPAK

Indeed the non-century contest-turning knock was something of a speciality: in the second innings in Chennai 2001, Adelaide 2003, Mumbai 2004, and Perth 2008 (all against Australia), Laxman calmed the nerves and advanced the game with steely resolve and soft-handed finery.

His influence has been felt in first innings as well, albeit to a lesser degree. It seemed as if India had to be behind for him to summon his best: his 148 to Dravid’s 233 in Adelaide came after India had conceded more than 500; a less-remembered masterpiece, his 109 in the ill-tempered Sydney Test of 2008, was in response to Australia’s 463.

Laxman isn’t certain why he was so good in duress. The closest he came to an answer was in Durban when he said that perhaps he entered the zone batsmen talk about — where the mind is empty of thought, allowing instinct to take over — more readily, more consistently in a crisis than in normal circumstances.

And when in the zone, his style of batting was perfect for a crisis, for it transferred pressure quickly. Because he had such a keen eye and such supple wrists, he could persuade the ball, with little bodywork, to unprotected parts of the field on fourth- and fifth-day tracks. When set, his play against the break and against the swing was exceptional. His reach as a tall man, a facet of his batting not always appreciated, helped him attack spinners aiming for the rough. His height also allowed him better control of the hook, the pull, and the cut against the quicks. The hook and the pull cost him in England last year, but they served him well on other occasions, particularly abroad.

He added the paddle-sweep to his repertoire in the last three years of his career, making him even more difficult to contain. He was also among the best readers of a spinner’s hand: except for Ajantha Mendis in 2008, Laxman often knew a delivery’s designs as the ball began its flight.

The skill to play late and without committing the front foot — although his balance was biased forward — served him well against reverse-swing. His gift for timing age-softened cricket balls was astonishing. As a result, despite not being a muscular striker of the ball and despite being a leisurely runner between wickets, he could maintain a quick rate of scoring.

He understood his tail well, knowing which bowlers they could handle and which they couldn’t. They grew in confidence in his presence, batting better than they did with other batsmen.

If Laxman had a weakness, it was against movement, seam more than swing, for his footwork was minimal. Swing he often handled in his inimitable way: Laxman’s off-side play against James Anderson at Trent Bridge last year was a master-class. He left well, judging the line and the swing early. When he made a stroke, it was late — not thrillingly late as it is with men with high back-lifts, but late with time to spare. He thus often met the ball after it had done its thing; if it was continuing to do it, his hands went with the swing, adjusting at speed.

The length ball that seamed at pace troubled him; but then it does every batsman. The thing with Laxman though was that he nearly always found a way, particularly if an urgent situation was forced on him. Only in his final season did his magic seem less assured.

Laxman will be missed, by the fan, by the connoisseur, but mostly by his team. His teammates have lost their nicest, most generous mate, the perfect man to go to battle or dinner with.