The heroic manner in which VVS Laxman stood tall among the ruins during the 2nd Test against South Africa delighted the Indian heart, enthralled the cricket lover’s mind and dazzled the beholder’s eye. Laxman’s charm continues to grow. He manages to come out trumps time after time when everything seems lost. Amazingly and intriguingly, he is at his very best in the face of severe adversity.
At Kingsmead, Durban, as in Mohali against Australia, at Ahmedabad against the Kiwis, and at Colombo against the Lankans - all earlier this year - Laxman was the last man standing, the hero who stood up against the awesome artillery of the opponents. He withstood each and every missile that was thrown at him by the formidable South African attack.
The Kingsmead pitch was bowler friendly, to say the least. No other batsman from either side reached 40 in the whole match, but Laxman top scored for India in the 2nd innings with 96 of the most precious runs ever scored in Test cricket.
He was the highest scorer in the first knock, too, with an unruffled 39 that ended only when Lonwabo Tsotsobe stretched out a hand low to his right and plucked a catch out of nowhere. Laxman had pulled the ball as elegantly as ever and it seemed headed only for the boundary when Tsostsobe intercepted it in spectacular fashion.
In the second innings, with India desperately needing someone to play a big knock in order to set South Africa a suitable target, Laxman raised his hand, as he often does, to steer India to a lead of over 300.
His strokeplay was brilliant, his defence secure and his concentration supreme. He remained unaffected by the barrage of bouncers that Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel hurled at him. He did not flinch nor did he give a quarter.
Commentators have often observed, and rightly so, that he is not the quickest runner between wickets. He missed a few singles that would have surely taken him into three figures, but then there is something charming, almost lovable about Laxman’s batting that makes one overlook his errors.
Sachin Tendulkar, centurion at Centurion but dismissed cheaply in both innings at Durban, Rahul Dravid and Laxman make up a middle-order that is a captain’s delight. The skipper himself, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, has been among the runs in the series. The openers, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir (replaced by Murali Vijay due to injury in the 2nd Test) are also handful for opposing bowlers.
The fact that India has made a sizeable score in the series only in the 2nd innings of the 1st Test, despite possessing such riches, is a reflection of their poor preparation for a key series on bouncy pitches. But the bowling attack, much-maligned after the poor show at Centurion, came into its own in telling fashion at Kingsmead and made the capable South African batters look like novices.
The man responsible for this transformation was surely Zaheer Khan. His confident body languge, chatty approach, coupled with superb skill, clearly pepped up Harbhajan Singh, S Sreesanth and even Ishant Sharma. The manner in which Jacques Kallis was caught hopping in the 2nd innings off a Sreesanth snorter was a sight to behold for sore Indian eyes! Zaheer also displayed a now familiar resolve with the bat and aided Laxman in putting up a healthy 70 runs for the 8th wicket when the chips were down.
It was unquestionable Laxman’s match, but Zaheer, Sreesanth and Harbhajan deserve kudos as well. Dhoni’s men have made one thing amply clear. They are deserving world leaders in Test cricket and can never be counted out, whatever the state of the match.
India drew the final Test which they had a realistic chance of winning. But even a draw was creditable, under the circumstances. Oh yeah, Laxman was there at the end, yet again, playing a meaningful role in that the Test and series was drawn!
(A civil servant by profession, Vivek Atray is a cricket writer who has contributed to the Indian Express, the Tribune and to various cricket websites. He organises the All India JP Atray Cricket Tournament at Chandigarh annually in memory of his father. He has also been Media Advisor to the Punjab Cricket Association and to Kings XI Punjab)