A Very Very Special Player. That’s how the great Australian teams of 1990s and 2000s remember Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, popularly known as VVS Laxman. They used to call him a special player despite the presence of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the Indian team. At a time when batsmen around the world feared facing their bowling, the stylish batsman from Hyderabad tormented them; tortured them; frustrated them with his majestic batsmanship.
The reverence came from the fact that Laxman wiped out Steve Waugh’s mission of winning the final frontier in 2001. They came to India after winning 15 consecutive Tests, defeating each and every nation on their pursuit to conquer the world. The only place that was yet to be conquered was India. The mission of winning India started positively in Mumbai where they decimated the hosts in the first Test. Nobody gave India a semblance of chance after the first two days of the second Test at Kolkata too. Every Indian batsman had surrendered meekly in front of the quality Australian bowling. India were asked to follow on. Just the formalities were to be performed for the great Australian team to win the series and establish themselves as the all time best.
Laxman had other ideas. He fought hard in the first innings and made 59, the highest among the Indian batsmen. The regular No. 3, Rahul Dravid, was struggling for runs. Skipper Sourav Ganguly asked Laxman to bat in Dravid’s place in the second innings. He first stabilised the innings with Ganguly. When Dravid came to join him, India were 232/4. They were on the verge of losing the series. One more wicket, and Australia were into the Indian tail. What happened afterwards will always be the part of the cricketing folklore. Laxman kept playing on. One session, two sessions, three sessions…he batted for almost two entire days.
Australians started coming hard on him. McGrath, Gillispie, Kasprowicz tested him with everything- short balls, full pitch balls, good length deliveries. The harder they came, the faster the balls went to the boundary. He even treated the all time best leg-spinner Shane Warne with disdain, clipping his wide outside the off-stump deliveries to the long-leg boundary. He made 281, the then highest individual score by an Indian in Test cricket. The innings helped India win the Test. The hosts clinched the series in Chennai by beating the Aussies in the 3rd Test.
Laxman played more Tests after that. He helped India secure more victories but that particular innings in Kolkata changed the face of Indian cricket. It changed the fortunes of Indian cricket altogether.
Once they beat the mighty Australians on their home soil, the team did not look back after that. And for the next decade, India’s performance in Tests only saw upward motion. That innings of Laxman gave the team a confidence that they could beat any team anywhere around the world.
That India came back from Australia in 2003 without losing the Test series would not have been possible without the self-confidence the wristy batsman gave it to the team. He, along with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly formed the famed Indian batting quartet, which won India several matches on foreign soil, a rarity at that time. After drawing Test series in Australia, they won series in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, England and West Indies, an unthinkable achievement in 1990s.
Sport can be cruel. Sport does not give one assurance of permanency. Laxman discovered that throughout his playing career. Despite playing that historic innings, Laxman was not always a permanent fixture in the Test team. With Dravid in the team, he was hardly given his favourite number three spot. He, in fact, remained the first one to be chopped off. It might have pained him; it might have tortured him from inside. But he took every setback in his stride, and like his batting, he always came back in style.
Laxman was one of those players who get going when going gets tough. There were numerous innings in India and outside when Laxman’s fourth innings fifties won India tight match and helped them secure tough draws.
That he played 134 Test matches, that he survived for 16 long years in international cricket speak volume about the quality of his batting. But Laxman’s legacy is far more than his batting stats. At a time when some players failed to cope up with the pace of ODI cricket, they had to be satisfied with only playing Test cricket. Justin Langer, who scored more than 7,000 Test runs, appeared in only eight ODI matches throughout his cricketing career. Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Rahul Dravid will be remembered mostly for their exceptional achievements in Tests.
Laxman, too, never found his feet in the shorter version of the game. But the similarity ends there. Unlike the other ‘Test batsmen’ of his generation, Laxman was never dubbed as ‘dull’ or ‘boring’. His batting remained an absolute joy to watch. The way he used to employ his wrists to hit an off-side delivery to the deep mid-wicket was astonishing, the way he hit those cover drives or the extra cover drives or the pull shots, you could only say ‘wow’ after watching them. Laxman in full flow was beauty at its best.
He was not just very very special. He was also a very very unique, too. Laxman was one of those rare ‘Test batsmen’, who enthralled the Test spectators, mesmerised them with his classy Hyderabadi batsmanship. He was the one of those rare breeds who could attract the people to watch Test cricket with his elegant batting. With the shorter versions of cricket ruling the roost, beauty in batting is a thing of past. When Test cricket is battling for life, Laxman’s void will be impossible to fill.
There may be another Rahul Dravid or Sourav Ganguly. If God wishes, there may be another Sachin Tendulkar. But it can safely be said that there won’t be another Laxman…