Lots and lots have already been written about the silken grace and wristy brilliance that one witnesses when VVS Laxman is at the wicket. Arunabha Sengupta analyses one particular stroke in his versatile repertoire that significantly demonstrates him as the very, very special artist that he undoubtedly is.
Lots have already been written about the sublime grace and clockwork precision with which VVS Laxman manages to take India to wins in crisis situations, more than once snatching victory from the edge of precipice.
His wizardry with the willow – often described as a sight fit for the Gods – has provoked poetic plaudits even from the modern day media, more prone to writing about the peripheral sound and fury rather than the game on the greens.
Hence, instead of repeating the much-deserved eulogies that have flooded the print, sites and blogs with each new sparkling gem in his glittering career, I will limit my article to one solitary stroke that has, for me, demarcated him from all other stalwarts of this and other generations.
Having matured into a cricket aficionado in the ‘80s, the sight of a batsman pulling a fast bowler evokes romantic images – mainly because of the pitifully limited number successful executions of the routine by Indian batsmen during my formative years of cricket watching.
Many of the top batsmen of India had eschewed the shot totally, weighing the risks it brought into the game against the probable benefits. Brought up on domestic pitches, where the most backbreaking effort of the bowler more often than not failed to bounce a new ball higher than the knee, batsmen lacked sufficient practice against high class pace to employ it with confidence and consistency.
Dilip Vengsarkar seldom played it against fast bowling during his best days, preferring to evade or defend the short balls at his body. Mohammed Azharuddin resorted to it only as an afterthought during his madcap years of the mid-90s, and for someone who wielded the bat like an artist's brush, he suddenly seemed to trade it for a sledge hammer every time he went back to cart the ball past the square leg. Both these maestros failed more often than not whenever they tried the shot on the faster, bouncier tracks overseas.
Sunil Gavaskar, famously bringing the hook back into his repertoire during his 29th century that morning 28 years ago at the Feroz Shah Kotla, nevertheless confessed that the pull was one stroke he never mastered. Television did not beam the famed counterattack of Mohinder Amarnath in the West Indies in 1982, but back home in India, his performance against the best fast bowlers of his day was less than ordinary to put it very mildly.
Among the lesser luminaries with the bat, Kapil Dev did execute a Nataraja shot in which the bat scythed across the body, but, effective and exciting in an agricultural way, it was not exactly a sight for sore cricket loving eyes.
Krish Srikkanth did have a peculiar pull shot of his own, but as his averages of 30 in Test cricket and 29 in ODIs testify, seldom was he too long at the wicket to play the stroke with regularity. Probably the only time his pull brought forth success was when he holed out off Imran Khan in the Sialkot Test in Pakistan, 1989, thus denying Wasim Akram the distinction of getting his wicket on every occasion during the Test series. Akram, however, had both his hands in the dismissal as he took the catch at long-leg.
Ravi Shastri and Navjot Sidhu were too stiff around the lower back to swivel around and pull a super fast delivery. For all their six-hitting ability off slower men, their scoring became distinctly slower and painstaking whenever the balls became faster and shorter.
With the coming of the ‘90s, the phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar walked in and stamped his mark on all departments of the game, including the pull. Even as the expert in Sunil Gavaskar harped on his lack of inches which made it difficult for him to keep a pull on the ground, we were exposed to the thrills as he played the shot again and again, against every mighty fast bowler and with disdain. Yes, many a masterpiece in the making, or on the way to becoming an opus, were cut short by the stroke – his 88 in Napier,122 in Birmingham,169 in Cape Town and 155 in Bloemfontein are the ones in immediate memory. But, the discerning never complained of his dying by the sword, having been witness to the delightful heaven of his living by it. Versatile as he was, while his straight drives were just about gloriously timed pushes, delectable and effortless, his pulls were violent and merciless, executed with powerful disdain for the fast and famous bowlers around the world. As Andy Caddick will remember forever, they could travel far.
Then came Rahul Dravid, a master technician, who went about playing every stroke with the approved stamp of the MCC Coaching Manual. In his pull, as with every other stroke of his, he looked unhurried, composed and infallible, as the wall, which has been his alias ever since. Here was the first Indian batsman who could pull fast bowlers on pacy, green foreign wickets without allowing for the slightest risk that generally creep in even for the best masters of the stroke. This was in sharp contrast to his fellow debutant Sourav Ganguly, a peerless stroke-maker on the offside, whose pull off fast bowlers was often an act of futile self defence, eyes closed, bat held at a periscopic angle, with frequent, fatal and flimsy results. Dravid's pull had an elegant efficiency about it, which was the hallmark of his entire game. The ferocity associated with the stroke was eliminated as was the uncertainty.
Virender Sehwag, with the bludgeon of a bat, prefers to cart the short balls in the region between extra cover and third man. While initially he suffered some discomfort with the balls aimed at his body, he has developed a pull, which like most of his other shots, is belligerent and fierce, but the audacity and confidence while he plays it does not quite match the rest of his strokes around the wicket.
The Hyderabadi gharana of wristy willow wizardry
Enter VVS Laxman. Styled in the Hyderabadi gharana of wristy willow wizardry, stepping into the large shoes of Mohammad Azharuddin, he shuttled up and down the order for a few years, but soon outgrew the illustrious footwear. The world sat up to take notice of someone who had bettered the esoteric template he was built on. While possessing every bit of the silky elegance of the wrist on the onside, he was distinctly more assured than Azhar through the covers and could play the same ball to mid wicket or extra cover based on the whims of his will and wrists. At the same time, on faster wickets, he outshone the earlier artist almost to the extent that the sun outshines pretentious street lamps.
A significant reason for his success overseas was that while Azhar negotiated the short balls with a jump and a duck or a cross-batted swipe, more reliant on luck and wager than timing and placement, Laxman did have an impeccable pull shot which kept the fastest bowlers from pitching too short too often. Even when India was bundled out for 83 at Bridgetown while chasing 120 for a win in 1997 and Laxman was still going through the phase of floating up and down the batting order, a languid short-arm pull off Curtly Ambrose remains etched in the memory as he top scored with 15 while opening on that treacherous wicket.
While the pull embodies exuberant energy in the case of Tendulkar, elegant efficiency in the case of Dravid, in Laxman's case curiously it is an extension of the exquisite artistry in all his other shots. Timing and wristwork all the way!
When Laxman essays a pull shot off the fastest bowlers, there is none of the savagery associated with a bludgeon by a Mathew Hayden or an Adam Gilchrist or the arrogant ferocity of a Ricky Ponting. The body moves into position with the customary lazy elegance and the stroke is as wristy as his flick through the mid wicket – and as effective and devoid of risk.
In the 2010 Mohali Test against the Aussies when he famously won it for India by one wicket, the transcendental brilliance of the stroke was in evidence. During the later stages of the innings, when he was batting with Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha, with the field allowing singles, fielders placed on the furthest ropes, he kept taking twos with élan, using those malleable wrists to place the ball at will, just a wee bit on either side of the men in the outfield. With two people on the midwicket fence to cut off his celebrated flicks off the pad, Ben Hilfenhaus pitched short. Laxman laid back and rolled those wizard wrists over the ball, placing it with impeccable precision between the two deep fielders, the patrolmen almost running into each other as the ball mocked them, slipping through undeterred into the fence. It was a masterly demonstration of an unreal mix of artistry and efficiency in the face of utmost pressure.
People often wonder how he manages to turn out these poetic yet potent offerings in the face of peril. Some have compared his rescue acts to symphonies conducted with ambulance sirens in the background. However, I don’t think that it is strange. The most poignant of art, we must remember, comes from the dark pits of distress. We often see this same very, very special soul struggling for self expression when the going is smooth and there are lots of runs on the board as he walks into bat. On these occasions, he drops his paintbrush for the more austere workman's tools and sometimes looks like a fish out of water. It is only when the stakes are raised to tipping point and the opposition places demanding challenges for his creative batter's mind that he is motivated into mystical brilliance, a sight fit for gods.
One thing that probably works for him in his rearguard actions is that it is very difficult to set a field for him to limit his scoring or even keep them down to a single. Those wrists can always find the gap in the most crowded of fields. And while people like Tendulkar are wont to back their big-hitting ability to try and aim for the maximum when the batsmen at the other end are busy taking part in a relay race from and back to the pavilion – something that brought about his demise in the heartbreaking so near yet so far affair in Chennai against Pakistan in 1999 – Laxman, with all his genius, knows the limitations which keep him from clearing the fence too often. Even when six runs are needed with the last man in, there is no desperate attempt to aim for the stands. Unlimited in versatile artistry, he is fully aware of the boundaries of his calibre which has limited his over-boundaries to five in all test matches. In fact, the only occasions when Laxman looks ungainly at the wicket are when he tries cross-batted cow-shots.
However, genius is rare. There will hardly be another 281 in a lifetime. And Laxman may not hit another six in his career. Even then, let me recount one of these rare occasions which stick to the memory. There are strokes that a cricket lover cannot forget. The straight drive of Tendulkar off Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup face off. The pull of Brian Lara, with an almost vertical bat, two feet off the ground. And that moment of mesmerising magic by Laxman.
It was a short innings of 32, made from 30 balls, a miniature masterpiece if there ever was one, on the fast and furious Bloemfontein wicket against Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, Makhaya Ntini, Lance Klusener and Jacques Kallis. In the 9th over, with India at 17 for one, Pollock ran in and bounced. Laxman, with a seeming eternity in his hands, swivelled, languid and lissome, and dismissed the ball off his face. It was a cross-batted stroke off a short ball, experts undecided whether to call a hook or a pull. Almost a cross-batted counterpart of a Tendulkar defensive push which often blazes away to the fence. The effort was minimal, the fuss non-existent, the batsman's eyes hardly followed the ball once it had been removed from his presence. The red cherry sailed all the way, over the boundary board behind square leg and into the crowd. A short ball by one of the fastest men in business almost lovingly caressed away for a six! A contradiction in terms?
But it is precisely this distinction that makes Laxman the very, very special magician that he is, a conjurer who can brighten the drabbest of days with a wave of his willow wand, an artist who carves masterpieces on the canvas of a green oval with beatific brushes of his bat.
(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)