What’s life without a challenge? That summed up the cricketing life of the very very sublime VVS Laxman. When India was going great guns and the opposition was weak, then you would sometimes find Laxman getting out cheaply.
But when the pressure built up, Laxman would thrive and runs would flow through his bat with a grace unseen in international cricket.
The statistics bear him out. In Test cricket he averaged a decent 46 odd. But put him in the second innings where the pitch would have worn out and the batting would be greater and we find that he averaged close to 50 (50+ before the overseas 0-8 debacle hit all Indian cricketers.) Very few international cricketers have that kind of second innings average. Some even languish in the 20s and 30s.
Laxman also averaged close to 50 against the strongest team in the world in the form of Australia. In fact, most of his centuries came against that team.
His high point will always remain his 281 at Eden Gardens. Steve Waugh’s invincibles won 16 Tests on the trot and enforced a follow-on against India. The Aussies were in real danger of going 2-0 up and rendering the series dead.
In what is now part of Indian folklore, Laxman and Rahul Dravid put up 376 runs for the fifth wicket. Laxman’s innings is one the greatest of all time as India squared the series 1-1 following it up by winning the next Test to take the series.
It was a perfect innings in a perfect match in a perfect series.
It was no flash in a pan. He has hit a 150 in almost every series against his favourite opponent, so much so that at times it became a Laxman versus Australia show.
Another VVS talent was shepherding the tail and lower order batsmen played really well around him. He knew when to expose the tail and when to shield it. This showed in our fourth innings chases in Tests.
Time was when India struggled to chase a total of 200 plus in the last innings of Tests. But we have been doing it regularly of late and that is thanks to Laxman.
In the Sri Lanka tour of 2010, the hosts had gone up 1-0 and in the second Test and we were looking at defeat once again. Chasing 257 for victory, we were in a spot of bother at 62-4 and in danger of going 0-2 down to lose the series. But two fine partnerships first with Sachin Tendulkar and then with Suresh Raina saw India win comfortably by 5 wickets in the end. Laxman hit a priceless unbeaten century.
Within a few months, Laxman was in the act again. In the first Test at Mohali, Australia set us a target of 216. It seemed all but over at 124-8, but Laxman coaxed a valiant 31 out of fast bowler Ishant Sharma and we won narrowly by 1 wicket. A fighting 73 not out by Laxman took the initiative away from Australia and they never recovered, losing 0-2, a feat rarely achieved by an Indian team.
In 2011 on Indian soil, it was the turn of the West Indies to turn the screws. They set us a target of 276 and that too was achieved with ease with Laxman staying till the very end with an unbeaten half-century.
The 0-8 debacle hit the seniors of Indian cricket really hard. While Rahul Dravid hung in his boots after the last series, the pressure was on Laxman. We were facing an unusually long Test schedule of home soil from 2012-13 and there were many voices calling for a fresh team to be trained in this period before we went overseas again.
Well, it’s very easy to talk, but extremely difficult to walk the talk. Laxman could have easily played till 2013 and boosted his records but that’s not the way Laxman plays. He decided to make way for newcomers, a totally selfless act.
Talents come and go. Records come and go. But players who thrive under pressure are indeed rare and it is in this aspect that filling the void left by Laxman will be a very tough task indeed.
The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist and blogger.
He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/