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Hyderabadi No 281

Laxman is more than just special. But he has never got his dues.

By Sanjay Jha

At the CCI the tall lanky Hyderabadi sat watching a veterans tennis match featuring the ultimate legend, the Swedish Bjorn Borg. Every time Borg played a classic shot he gave his famous wide grin and clapped vigorously like an excited kid watching his sports idol. He sat all alone, signed the occasional autograph book and politely chatted with those who introduced themselves to him. Not long ago, he himself had had the world mesmerized with a knock that would go down in the history of the game as one of the greatest they would have ever seen, resulting in a monumental fight-back from almost complete hopelessness, and culminating in an incredible victory for India. He was the man who along with an equally resolute fighter in Rahul Dravid had written a manuscript for the gods. A story that would be told, retold and remembered with awe and respect and sheer disbelief on our planet for millenniums to come. That man was VVS Laxman.

In a dug-out he sat the other day, considered a misfit  for IPL T20 and for his team Deccan Chargers, sporting a brave facade not allowing the anguish, frustration and disappointment to show, ostensibly nursing an injury. When his team won though he clapped and shouted in exuberance not allowing his personal emotions to overtake his public persona. It was vintage Laxman. Mister Modesty Blaze. I am sure somewhere the fact that he was never part of an Indian squad for a single World Cup campaign still rankles deep within, but characteristically he remains philosophically oblivious of that hurt at least on the surface. No bitterness, nothing. A fragile recollection perhaps but the man is not easily frangible. It has always been the way VVS has been. Interestingly, his ODI record is far from unsatisfactory as is generally assumed or as the erstwhile coach Greg Chappell tended to extrapolate.

In fact, just as Yuvraj Singh got conveniently slotted as the ‘limited overs’ man, VVS found himself callously dumped from Chappell’s stratagems for being only ‘Test worthy’. Several hypothesis were floated like a balloon; VVS’s iffy running between the wickets and his languorous fielding. Or the fact that he was incapable of quick acceleration. What Chappell studiously overlooked was the fact that when it mattered in 2004 against Australia he scored solid centuries back to back besides showing razor-sharp reflexes while fielding in close-in positions. His 2358 runs at an average of approximately 30 runs in ODIs may not be staggering but his continuous omissions and the final callous rejection most abruptly done was not quite justified either. But in Tests, where it really mattered, where the men and boys stood segregated by a clear chalk-line demarcation, Laxman was worth several toasts. He has played over 100 of them.

His Test record may not be as spectacular as Sachin or Dravid’s but he has amassed an impressive 6,917 runs at a consistent average of 45. But those numbers conceal many a magical moment which statistics alone can barely do much justice to. One of them was in Eden Gardens in 2001.

Steve Waugh’s Australian team had mercilessly thrashed the Indians in the Mumbai Test and went to Kolkata all set to capture the elusive Final Frontier, a determined assault pre-planned to perfection. Trailing by 274 runs in a first innings deficit and struggling at 115 for 3 when Sachin Tendulkar fell an innings defeat looked imminent. Media folk and research experts prepared to write about India’s sorry subjugation before the ominous Oz force. Waugh would finally beard the lion in their own den. A brief resistance was provided by Sourav Ganguly-VVS but at 232 for 4 the inevitable loomed like a dark skyscraper. Then almost magically the unbelievable happened. On the fourth day, VVS and Rahul Dravid tenaciously survived till the lunch break, but most importantly, also scored briskly, as if carefree from the tension of a potential defeat. Still, what was to follow seemed farthest from the mind of even the most optimistic faithful of Indian cricket. The pair played out the whole of fourth day without a frown on their foreheads and mayhem in their minds. It was just pure steely determination and gargantuan resolve. By the time Rahul Dravid was out for a magnificent 180 in a 376 run partnership, the Indians were contemplating an early declaration on the fifth day in the sanguine expectation that a totally numbed and completely stunned opposition might just allow the insurmountable Indian grit to weaken their defenses. Upset their morale. Make brittle their self-confidence. Prey on their increasing frustrations. The inevitable transpired. Incidentally, Laxman had made a towering 281 in 452 balls at a striking hit rate of 62 including a kitty of 44 boundaries.

Like Mohammad Azharuddin, his other counterpart from Hyderabad, Laxman’s wristy stroke-play is now part of cricket’s collector’s edition

Harbhajan Singh (6 wickets) and Sachin Tendulkar (3 wickets) then spun a deceptive web, and the Australians all set to down the bubbly on the third evening were soon drowning in abysmal sorrow as they were bundled out for a measly 212 runs, falling short by a whopping 174 runs. Bhajji took a hat-trick to rub salt into Waugh’s wounds. India had recorded one of the most astounding comebacks the world of cricket had perhaps ever seen. Or would. It was an evening so unforgettable that everything paled into insignificance for days on end. But Laxman’s task was far from done. In the decisive Third Test at Chennai, he continued his brilliant form scoring a vital 65 and 66 as India scrambled to a dramatic 2 wicket win and prevented Waugh’s obsessive dream of breaching the Indian fortress. The Final Frontier stood tall. So did VVS.

What makes Laxman’s record and contribution to Indian cricket even more noteworthy is the fact that he has played some of his most outstanding cricket against Australia when the world champions were at their highest peak and in a remorseless fiery mood. Six of his 13 centuries have been scored against them which includes incidentally two double hundreds. In 2003-04 series, his 148 at Adelaide was instrumental in that famous Indian win which would set up the famed Sydney clash where Laxman made another magnificent 178.

Even as he found himself ostracized from the ODI game-plan set by Chappell, he did not allow that to diminish his appetite for the critical challenges ahead. As India scored that historic Test win in Johannesburg in 2006, Laxman proudly stood as one of it’s bulwarks having made 73. And then in that titanic mental battle at Napier, New Zealand he played a priceless 124 not out in the resilient company of Gautam Gambhir to force an almost impossible draw, helping India win an away-series in New Zealand.

When I saw him unceremoniously dumped out of the Deccan Chargers IPL team, sitting disconsolately in the dug-out even as wild throngs celebrated every huge six emerging from the blades of Rohit Sharma, the hard reality of the new emerging cricket landscape in India stared back starkly. And for that one moment, one more time, I shut myself out from the obnoxious sounds of disco beats and the whirring visual of cheerleader gyrations and remembered a tall unassuming Hyderabadi in Eden Gardens on a March evening.

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