Timing was never VVS Laxman’s problem on the field. He has now proved that it is not a problem off the field too. By calling it a day prior to the Test series against New Zealand – despite being picked for the matches, despite the first game being in his hometown – he has lived up to what he said at the press conference on Saturday that "he always kept his country’s needs ahead of his his personal aspirations."
His retirement was imminent so why not now? Why wait till the end of the series against New Zealand? What’s two more matches for a stalwart who has played 134 Tests?
More on VVS Laxman
What’s a few more runs and perhaps another century for a selfless player who has scored 8781 runs and notched up 17 hundreds – including one that by common consent is the greatest ever played by an Indian in Test cricket. From Mr Elegance to Mr Crisis Man, Laxman has played the whole gamut of roles combining substance with style in a manner that is almost unique.
It was in a poll conducted on a website a few years ago that Laxman’s 281 against Australia at Kolkata in March 2001 was adjudged the greatest innings ever played by an Indian in Test cricket. It was final confirmation of something that had been acknowledged by cricket followers, experts and fellow players ever since he crafted an unforgettable knock – a near triple century of epic proportions which turned a Test match around on its head so markedly that only for the third time in Test history a side that enforced the follow on crumbled to defeat.
And yet it took some time for the touch artist from Hyderabad – following in the line of other such cultivated stylists as ML Jaisimha and Md Azharuddin – to take his rightful place in the lustrous middle order that came to be known for a decade as "the fab four."
It was a tribute to Laxman’s class, skill, technique, temperament and artistry that even in such a dazzling line-up he more than held his own, frequently coming to the team’s rescue when the others failed.
As the 2004 edition of Wisden noted after Laxman elegantly pieced together two match saving knocks against New Zealand at Mohali in October 2003: "There are times when John Wright India’s Kiwi coach must be feeling like dropping to his knees and kissing the feet of VVS Laxman. It was Laxman after all who saved Wright’s skin at Kolkata in 2001 his epic 281 setting the scene for one of Test cricket’s most famous wins. And he was at it again at Mohali first compiling an unbeaten hundred as India fell just seven runs short of the follow on mark and then defying New Zealand for most of the final day to consign the Test and the series to an honourable draw. Indian administrators are not known for their tolerance when their team loses at home and Wright would have been in the firing line had the side folded."
But then Wright was not alone in paying tribute to Laxman. His captain, teammates and the average cricket fan have been all too eager to adopt an obsequious approach towards Laxman – and with good reason. A stylist with a solid base, Laxman was very much a noble torchbearer of the rich Hyderabadi tradition of producing players who possess a silken elegance.
Oriental artistry was seen in abundant measure in the batting of Jaisimha and Azharuddin. Laxman just carried on where Azhar left off. Wielding his bat as if it were a wand he caressed the ball away from the reach of the fieldsmen playing shots that only he could. His drives were of the ethereal quality and the very personification of elegance and timing.
Laxman was the one batsman who could play one of cricket’s more difficult strokes – the on drive – with utmost fluency. Body balance, movement of the feet and adroit placing of the stroke repeatedly saw the ball elude the fielder, bisect the gap between mid wicket and mid on and race to the fence. His cutting, both square and late, was a joy to watch and to old timers these shots brought back happy memories of Gundappa Viswanath.
Like Azhar, he played the glance and the glide through slips so fine that it was impossible for any captain to set a field for him. With all his attacking instincts Laxman’s defence was secure – assuredly so as his batting was based on an impeccable technique.
The rescue acts that Laxman pulled off are too frequent and fortunately too recent to require retelling. The great thing about Laxman was that even in such onerous circumstances his batting was not laboured but remained charming. This was best brought out by Sachin Tendulkar when he and Laxman added 353 runs for the fourth wicket against Australia at Sydney in 2004.
The two matched each other in run production but in stroke production Laxman stole a march over the maestro. Tendulkar was effusive in his praise. "When he played all those shots, I decided it was best just to watch and enjoy his batting, rather than trying to do what he was doing." Yes, there are strokes the like of which only Laxman can produce.
There are certain quaint equations in Indian cricket. One that comes immediately to mind is Sunil Gavaskar + Queen’s Park Oval = century. A more recent one would be VVS Laxman + Australia = success. Laxman relished Aussie bowling and this was the ultimate confirmation that when the opposition was stronger Laxman got better.
How did he explain his phenomenal success against Australia once asked an interviewer? Trust Laxman to come up with a typical reply. A shrug of the shoulders, a shy smile and an answer so very inimitable Laxman: "I don’t really know."
The modesty and unassuming nature of this soft-spoken team man remains almost unreal as we saw it again at Saturday’s press conference. Any disappointments were shrugged aside and he spoke only of the good times that cricket had given him.
But there is nothing modest about Laxman’s record; that is thoroughly real. Like his batting he is all grace off the field too. Indian cricket is blessed by the pristine art of Laxman as well as his gracious behaviour. And while it is a frightening thought that with Laxman’s retirement three of "the fab four" have ridden off into the sunset for the moment at least let us savour the many sheer moments of unbridled joy that Laxman gave us during his 16-year long international career.