He was the epitome of understated elegance. Now just writing that in past tense sends me on a reflective spin, filled with the pleasant memories of a colossal cricketer. It has been more than a year since the great batsman packed his kit and drove home into the warm embrace of his loving family. But such was his elegant brilliance, that the magic of its beauty simply refuses to fade away from the many souls he touched just with an elegant flick of his wrists. Possessed with a golden heart, he is one of those rare cricket stars who remained simple and grounded despite the trappings of stardom and adulation.
Even as Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman turns 39 today, he shall forever remain the 26-year-old young man that ground the Aussies into unlikely submission in the summer of 2001. But then, it is even more important to remember Laxman for his unselfish adventures in the middle, especially amidst the deeply individualistic culture that prevailed in the teams of his time.
One will remember Laxman for his humane ways both on and off the field. He never needed a public relations trainer to teach him the importance of being a team player. The man was just the quintessential soldier whose veins bled for his team, without so much as asking. The humble Hyderabadi must be lauded for placing the needs of the team consistently above his, through a mostly illustrious career.
Laxman is a man of faith and conviction and his naturally beautiful character shone through in his cricketing expression. It was obvious from the moment he walked into the arc lights as a 22-year-old young man that Laxman was a quiet, reserved lad. The bat did his bidding and more often than not, his elegant blade sang rhapsodies to extract his team from an envelope of darkness into the warmth and glow of victory.
It was like that from the very beginning. In his debut against the visiting South Africans at Ahmedabad in 1996 Laxman failed to impress in his first innings. It didn’t take long for the lanky young man to make a mark though. Walking out at 82-4 in the second, Laxman crafted an edifice with resolve and restraint to score a beautiful 51 in an innings of 190 to pave the path for a 64-run victory. Not surprisingly, Laxman made it a habit to produce a stunning collection of second innings classics that guarantee his place among the pantheon of great players.
Any discussion about Laxman would be incomplete without speaking about that monumental 281 against the befuddled Aussies, who suffered a waking nightmare after forcing India to follow on at the Eden Gardens in March 2001. Still only 26, Laxman batted a shade more than ten and a half hours to grate the Aussies into a state of desperate helplessness. It is considered by many as the greatest innings played by an Indian player.
While that might indeed be as close to a sporting fact as can be, Laxman’s collection of jewels was not restricted to that once-in-a-lifetime effort. You might remember with equal fondness, if not more, that the wonderful cricketer once again stood between the Aussies and a seemingly certain victory during the autumn of his career.
It was three years ago, in the month of October, just before he turned 36. The Indian team needed 216 in the fourth innings to earn a victory over the Aussies at Mohali. Laxman was battling severe spasms in the back and was forced to sit out in the pavilion as he watched a dismal performance from the team unfold. Coming in as the number 10, Laxman looked up to survey the ruins. The scorecard presented a picture of misery and pain.
The situation, at 124-8, was akin to that of Julius Caeser’s men in the battle of Pharsalus against the formidable arsenal at the disposal of Pompey the Great. But the warrior in Laxman was in no mood to allow the discomfort in his back to break his spirit. In another epic performance, Laxman scored nearly every run since taking to the crease, to help the team achieve the near impossible task.
By virtue of intensity and context, Laxman’s undefeated 73 was as magnificent an effort as any in the annals of cricket. The concoction of relief and elation that decorated his smiling visage was nearly as exquisitely beautiful as an emperor’s crown jewel. So many of the great man’s efforts were special not because they were measured centuries on a calibrated cricket calliper.
Laxman’s runs came wrapped in gold, like Diwali offerings that signify the might of light in yet another moment of grave darkness. And Laxman scored them with unfailing regularity, in the moments that the team needed a saviour.
We cannot obviously grudge the wonderful man a quiet birthday in the company of his family, for he has earned his break with an effort of sustained distinction. But one does hope that a solitaire of his pedigree returns to set up camp soon and mentor prospective cricketers. In Laxman they might find someone who can help them learn not just the nuances of the game, but also the endangered art of being gentle in a sport that is rapidly turning into a brazen circus of self-promotion.