It was coming, it was round the corner, it was catalyzed by his last season but very few would have expected it to have hit them so suddenly. About 8600 kilometers separate Adelaide and Hyderabad and in between that, two announcements have amputated the Indian cricket team with an experience of more than 20000 test runs, 298 test matches & 32 years of international cricket (combined) and left Indian cricket with a massive hole.
Most of the 90s belonged to Tendulkar, the late 90s and early 2000s had Ganguly and Dravid in the spotlight and the late 2000s had likes of Yuvraj and Dhoni take over that role, and there was Laxman amidst all that quietly going about his job. It would astound those who aren’t stats-gurus that Laxman played his first test match just 4 months after Dravid scripted a dream debut at Lord’s in 1996! He didn’t have an initial burst like Dravid or a continuous run in international cricket at the beginning. His ODI debut too wasn’t a glamorous one; failing miserably to get going and eventually his tryst with colored cricket didn’t last too long.
He did have a few critics hovering around during his playing days, who popped up more often than he would have liked them to. He wasn’t the greatest runner between wickets, or a great outfielder and often struggled to keep detractors quiet with periods of inconsistent scores. His modest numbers in places like England, New Zealand kept asking questions about his batting in those conditions. He didn’t play international T20s nor did he have a successful IPL career, which probably suggested that he was a one-dimensional player.
This is a moment to remember what he was, rather than what he could have been. Form to Laxman was based only on the parameter of number of runs he scored, as he could be facing the first delivery of his innings or batting on 150, the exquisite manner in which the wrists maneuvered the bat to meet the delivery at the right instant never failed to repeat that bit of mechanical act! His career story resembles a cropped sine wave with a trough at the beginning and one at the end. In the middle though, the crests have portions of amplified spikes, one that have an unparallel intensity in Indian cricket. During his hey-days, he was a nemesis for Australian attacks (probably the best during that period), had an uncanny ability of churning out memorable knocks out of nowhere, and possessed a rare feature of performing better in 2nd innings of test matches; these are outstanding characteristics for a player who predominantly batted at 5 or 6 in an Indian batting line-up!
Kolkata 2001, Adelaide 2003, Mumbai 2004, Johannesburg 2006, Nottingham 2007, Perth 2008, Kolkata 2010, Colombo 2010, Mohali 2010, Durban 2010 – VVS and these test matches have an inseparable connection, one that doesn’t require any Indian fan to dig hard into his memory reserves! The venues, opposition, circumstances in the cited examples are sufficient to explain why the Indian team couldn’t do without him over the last decade or so. He wasn’t the impact factor in the line-up nor the pivot around which the batting revolved nor the run-machine who would roll out big innings just like that, but he was the one whose knocks laid milestones for Indian cricket to track its progress. He liked batting at 3, but when he realized that the team had a Dravid for that role, he customized himself for the lower-middle order job, one that had a completely different set of demands.
Laxman was good against spin and seam, a rare facet for middle-order sub-continental batsmen. Apart from his batting, he was a more-than-useful slip fielder and a safe close-in fielder and ended up with 2 test wickets as well. VVS will always remain a colossal in the history of Indian cricket, one who was an integral and an important part of the successful test side of 2000s, even though he remained an ‘highly’ under-celebrated entity in India’s success during that period. His farewell speech was similar to what he has been off-field over the last 16 years – soft-spoken and graceful. You almost get a sense that he is an ideal illustration of ‘accident of birth’; he would have been a ‘greater’ cricketer in some other era. The fact that he created an unperturbed identity for himself playing alongside likes of Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly asserts the quality the man possessed.
If you had to watch precise batting, you would watch Dravid bat, if you wanted to extract joy and awe, you would tune in to watch Tendulkar bat, if you wanted to enjoy flair of batting, you would watch Ganguly bat, but if you wished to visualize an artist portray his ideas on a canvas, you would undoubtedly have Laxman for that role. Alas, the curtains on the magic show have come down, one final time.
Published with permission from The Spectator.