VVS Laxman has an everlasting honeymoon with Eden Gardens, but his love affair with the Sydney Cricket Ground hints at blessed bigamous tendencies of his bewitching bat! It’s a venue where he has hit hundreds at will during each of his previous outings at the venue. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the magical moments when his wristy strokeplay lit up the ground on three visits.
The quaint Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) has brought India some moments of hope and more depths of despair during the past two decades.
In 1999-2000 and 2007-08, they have finished second-best – on the second occasion under controversial circumstances resulting in quite a few ripples in the cricketing relationship between the two countries.
In 1991-92 and 2003-04, however, the visitors had the hosts down on their knees, with victory close enough to script with a final fling of the ball, when fate and stubborn late resistance contrived to stand steadfastly in the way of success. Vagaries of the elements combined with Alan Border in ‘91, and Simon Katich in ‘04 ensured heart-wrenching stalemates.
While fortune has been fickle, the arena has nevertheless been the happy hunting ground for two Indian masters who return for perhaps the last time to resume their lasting romance with the venue.
Sachin Tendulkar’s three centuries in the four outings is well known and cricket lovers the world over anxiously await an encore from the maestro, perhaps at last resulting in the elusive hundredth ton in the backyard of Don Bradman.
However, for another man this is a stage where his fame as a magician was first scripted and then underlined with strokes of certainty.
VVS Laxman does have an everlasting honeymoon with Eden Gardens, but his love affair with the Sydney Cricket Ground hints at blessed bigamous tendencies of his bewitching bat!
In early 2000, the artist did not start off at the ground with the virtuoso brush strokes of the bat which has now long been his flowing signature across the canvas of cricket. The poor man was still floating up and down the batting order, the time and tide of Indian cricket forcing him to spend most of his days at the very top of the innings where – in a hashed metaphor against the current, he resembled the proverbial fish out of water. In 16 Tests till then, he had scored at a measly 24 runs per innings, without reaching three figures even once.
His first innings on the Sydney turf did not hint at miracles to come. A long, one-and-a-half hour struggle yielded a painstaking seven before he fell to Brett Lee. The axe glistened as there was uncertainty about his future when he walked out for the second essay, a mountain of a 402-run deficit to climb. The burning deck situation perhaps tempered the steel that had till then remained dormant in his game, forging his willow into a magical sword that tore into the attack. Wickets fell all around him while boundaries flowed from his bat, precursor of countless crisis situations that would awake the genius of batsmanship within him. Drives with the magical manipulation of the wrists sent the ball all over the ground between cover point and midwicket, moments of inspired genius interrupted every once in a while as another batsman made his long walk back to the hutch. Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Damien Fleming and Shane Warne, no one was spared. When he was eighth out for a 198-ball 167, the score read just 258. India had already lost the match, but on the credit side was a name that would glitter through the pages of the next decade.
By the time he returned to the arena in 2004, Laxman was a name to reckon with in the most rarefied echelons of Test cricket. The alchemy of wristy stroke-play had turned his exploits into golden accounts batsmanship. He had already worked a couple of miracles with Rahul Dravid, manufacturing two victories against the all conquering Australians out of the darkest pits of defeat.
He came in to bat this time with the score reading 194 for three. Sachin Tendulkar was at the other end in the midst of an austere, meditative innings, playing himself back into form. The two remained together for almost 100 overs, adding the little matter of 353 runs. With Tendulkar curbing his strokes in a display of unflinching concentration – on his way to perhaps the highest ever score by a man nowhere near his best, Laxman turned the conjurer, the willow-turning wand, sleights of hand sending the ball scampering across the turf. When a tired Jason Gillespie finally disturbed the furniture behind, Laxman had made 178, studded with 30 boundaries that caressed all around the ground. Indian could not knock over the final few wickets on the fifth day to ensure victory, but the 705-run total was the highest they had ever managed till then in Test cricket.
The third outing was during the infamous 2008 Test, India one down in the series with a score of 463 staring at them. Laxman walked into a crisis situation of sorts, at eight for one. His long-time partner of classic collaborations, Rahul Dravid at the other end, was a long way from his best. With “The Wall” scratching around for runs, determined not to give his wicket cheaply, Laxman took charge in his trademark manner, sending the same balls to the extra cover or midwicket as his wrists willed. He raced to his 50 in 43 balls, with 10 boundaries, seizing the initiative back from the clutches of the Aussies, before slowing down to reach his third century in the ground off 127 balls. He was finally out two runs after Dravid, misreading a wrong one from Brad Hogg, for 109. But, by then the score read 185 for three, the launch pad laid to perfection for Tendulkar to provide a master class with an unbeaten 154.
In spite of a 69-run lead, the infamous fifth day decisions engineered an ill-fated defeat for India – with controversy dogging the last stretch, questions about the spirit of the game raised with articulate eloquence by the Indian captain, Anil Kumble. The lustre of batting brilliance was perhaps tarnished somewhat by the fumes of altercation.
But four years down the line, the air has cleared. And the continuing genius of VVS Laxman has come back into prominence, recalled with a heady mixture of fondness and awe. No matter which side one roots for when the Test match gets underway, no passionate cricket lover can suppress a desire for the very, very special talent to flare up once more, to light up the ground in yet another glorious chapter of stroke-making.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)