V.V.S. Laxman: The Last Frontier?

TO `beep or not to beep' remains the classic dilemma of V.V.S. Laxman.

RAJU BHARATAN

TO `beep or not to beep' remains the classic dilemma of V.V.S. Laxman. Seeing how VVS's Hamletian escapism manifested itself yet again, as Laxman turned down the opportunity to tour England with the India-A team. Laxman's shock batting failure, while captain on the recent India-A tour of the West Indies, probably explains why he did not want to run the second-eleven risk again. It is this haunting fear of failure that accounts for Laxman's not rising to his full stature even after that `second coming' against Steve Waugh's Australia, in India, during the memorable March of 2001. How Laxman's orbits have become blurred all over again! After his strokefully asserting that No. 3 was his natural batting position for India in Test cricket. Pushed back by Rahul to where he originally belonged as India's No. 6, VVS gives one the impression of having put on mental blinkers each time he now steps out to bat in a Test match. He still scores for India, true. But only by studiously refusing to come out of his snail shell!

Laxman well knows that, on form, they have to pick him for the two back-to-back Tests vs Stephen Fleming's New Zealand in India (starting October 8). If only because our cricket mentors have, in the match fitness of things, to condition Laxman for `The Last Frontier' in his career — the much tougher four-Test series (through five weeks) in Australia, come December 4. All Australia is waiting to view VVS afresh after the twins, Steve and Mark, `Waugh Zone' hailed Laxman's 281 (in the March 2001 India-Australia Eden Gardens series turner) as the finest Test innings they had seen played in their lifetime. Even more eye-catching than that 281, in a sense, was the 65 & 66 Laxman sculpted in the Chepauk Test. Here VVS either came down the wicket, on ballet-dancing feet, or stepped back, dismissively, to shorten the length. The stroke-production idiom that Laxman brought to just toying with world-classy bowling, in that Chepauk Test, is what all Australia is looking forward to viewing now. All the more so as Laxman then sustained the rich vein in the five one-dayers, too, vs Steve's Australia — 45 at Bangalore; 51 (run out) at Pune; 83 (run out) at Indore; 11 at Visakhapatnam; plus 101 at Margao. I here have to repeat what Steve Waugh then noted (in his `Skipperspeak' column) after the Great Dickensian Expectations Laxman aroused. Wrote Steve during the second week of April 2001, pointedly keeping in mind India's two Tests to come in Zimbabwe: "Of course Tendulkar will score runs, and plenty of them, as will Dravid. But the big interest will revolve around Laxman. He is potentially as good as Tendulkar, but the seaming wickets will provide a stern challenge and give us a clue to his future prospects.''

A clue that baffles a professional crossword compiler like me to this day! For Laxman's 28 & 38 in the Bulawayo Test, his 15 & 20 in the Harare Test (during June 2001), underlined how only "potentially as good as Tendulkar'' was VVS destined to remain. That, during each one of those four Test innings (in Zimbabwe), Laxman gifted away his wicket opened the doorway for Rahul, ultimately, to seize back his niche No. 3 slot in the Indian team. It is on the Laxman syndrome I now focus, leaving the Sachin Test case-study to the issue of July 5, 2003. In fact, after just 101 runs from those 4 eagerly awaited Test innings on "the seaming wickets'' providing a "stern challenge'' in Zimbabwe, Laxman was knee deep in trouble. Once Laxman's dodgy ankle ruled out VVS from that crucial August 2001 three-Test series in Sri Lanka, midway through the contest there, Rahul was back at one-down.

So much for Laxman's airy-fairly talk of No. 3 being his "natural position'' in India's batting order. The six letters of Laxman are the six letters of Rhythm. Rhythm was the keynote of Laxman's batsmanship — telly coming through as poetry in motion — vs World Champions Australia. Rhythm is what Laxman has fatally lost, as a stylist, ever since he came back into Sourav's India team for those two tortured Tests, in South Africa, during November 2001. Laxman's 32 & 29 in the Bloemfontein Test, his 89 in the Port Elizabeth Test, witnessed VVS to be self-conscious, throughout, about the inherent danger of losing his wicket in a laid-back mode calculated to invite fresh criticism.

Result — there no longer was any real spontaneity to Laxman's batsmanship. Take away spontaneity from Laxman's repertoire and he ceases to be a second Azhar in full cry. Truth to tell, Laxman now is a run-gatherer rather than a rungetter for India. A run hoarder is exactly what Laxman has to cease to be, if he is to win his Test spurs afresh in Australia. On the Test cricket scene, the Aussies still cherish the willowy memory of Laxman's rounding off the January 4, 2000, Sydney Test with that cultured 167 (from 198 balls with 27 fours and a five to cricket-boot). By stark contrast, Laxman today appears to bat, mentally reckoning for each buck in the big money he stands to lose by yet again not being picked to play for India. The point for Laxman to absorb is that he could hope to preserve his very special spot in the Indian team only by giving free play to the full range of shots in his quicksilver quiver.

At least during those two Tests in Zimbabwe, Laxman ventured to bat like he had done at Eden and Chepauk. Only to see his wicket `wobble' each time he struck out. This happened because Laxman, in Zimbabwe, displayed an uncaring attitude by which he seemed to think that he could perform from Eden-Chepauk memory. Then in South Africa — his confidence hardly boosted by that suddenly enforced knee-operative four-month lay-off — Laxman looked, all along the line bowled to him, to be acutely aware of the need to preserve his wicket at all costs. This was an indictment of Laxman's style and technique alike. The four-Test series, in Australia, begins with Laxman's having already entered his 30th bachelor year — on November 1. Laxman, still eligibly, either delivers now or makes way for the younger order. Maybe not one from among these new romancers commands Laxman's intrinsic Test class. Yet even class is permanent only so long as content matches form!

Just picture Laxman's amended approach to batsmanship, even if he has managed to put some Test runs on the board. Not once (since Eden-Chepauk 2001) has Laxman looked the Test virtuoso calling the nerve-tingling shots. How Laxman flattered Hyderabad to deceive India as, during the December of 2001 on his own native Indian heath against Nasser Hussain's England, he came up with a footloose scoresheet of 28 in the Mohali Test; 75 in the Ahmedabad Test; 12 in the Bangalore Test. As Laxman fell tamely for 13 in the February 2002 Nagpur Test vs Zimbabwe (for Sanjay Bangar to strike a quick-fire 100 not out at a time when runs were of the essence), VVS failed to retain his India place in the Kotla Test to follow.

Nothing Laxman accomplished on the tour of the West Indies (through April-May 2002) convinced viewers that he still commanded the Sachin-like ability to destroy an international attack. True, Laxman here was frequently left to bat with the less creamier layer of India's order. But the way VVS failed to seize the initiative — almost each time after getting set — telebuffs wondered about who had scripted this weird character role for Laxman in India's star-cast. Laxman's 69 in the Georgetown Test; 69 (not out) & 74 in the Port-of-Spain Test; 1 & 43 in the Bridgetown Test; 130 in the Antigua Test; 65 (not out) & 23 in the Kingston Test had Navjot Singh Sidhu admiring his consistency. But such consistency is the virtue of the mediocrity, not the cognoscenti! Of Laxman's batting aristocracy, there was nary a sign in the West Indies. He was all science, no art.

This then was a Laxman craftily helping Sourav's India to draw Test matches, not pulse-racingly to win them — as at Eden and Chepauk. Laxman, when in full flow, is a joy to watch even in defence. But when defence becomes the bedrock of such a thoroughbred's batting, Laxman's blunted blade ceases to fire the imagination. Viewers could almost sense VVS's getting into the kind of mental rut certain, in the end-result, to prove his own undoing. During the four-match rubber drawn 1-1 by Sourav's India in England (July-August 2002), VVS, progressively, only lost further batting caste with 43 (not out) & 74 in the Lord's Test; 22 & 14 in the Trent Bridge Test; 6 in the Leeds Test; plus 40 in The Oval Test. Was this really Wisden's blue-eyed boy batting?

Followed the October 2002 three-Test series, in India, vs Carl Hooper's West Indies and VVS was viewed to be in the same penny-pinching mould still — on the eve of the World Cup. A Laxman scoreline of 45 in the Mumbai Test; 24 in the Chennai Test; 48 & 154 (not out) in the Kolkata Test was noteworthy for what Laxman's neo-batting format concealed rather than what it revealed. For instance, much here was made of Laxman's bat-in-hand 154 on his happy Eden Gardens hunting ground. This when the Eden October 2002 picture you carried of Laxman was one of VVS's agonising rather than articulating. No doubt his Eden Test 281 against Steve's Australia, too, had witnessed VVS defend. But that was in a daunting 274-run behind setting in which the `Defence of India Rules' came into force.

Here, in the late-2002 Eden Gardens Test, the West Indies bowling was not a patch on that of world-conquering Australia. Yet Laxman just stuck it out for 154 (not out). Never looking like shaking off his self-imposed fetters. Actually Laxman was cocooning himself to a point of no return. His traumatising 0 & 0 in the Wellington Test; 23 & 4 in the Hamilton Test vs Stephen Fleming's New Zealand (during December 2002) drove home the pincerpoint about how Venkatasai Laxman, by cramping self-denial, had disastrously lost momentum as a Test-match striker for India. So much so that Laxman now stands picked, for the four Tests in Australia, largely on his Wisden reputation.

The Steve-fashioned comparison of Laxman with Tendulkar has turned out to be ill founded. The threat Laxman posed to Rahul at No. 3, too, has proved to be a piece of chimera. VVS's Test batting career-graph, in fact, has assumed the dimension of an optical illusion. Laxman now simply must begin the process of rediscovering his lost Test batting ethos in the two back-to-back Tests, against New Zealand (during October 2003) itself. So that he carries (as in 2000) the battle into the new Aussie year of 2004. Carries the battle to the four-Test series Sydney-ending on January 6. This is the acid Test series that is going to unmake at least a couple of India's topnotchers. Laxman V.V.S., going on 30, should not be one of them.