Whenever he performed his art at the wicket, VVS Laxman came across as the magician. And hence, even as he announces his last vanishing trick, we yearn for him to reappear, to bedazzle us for one final time. Arunabha Sengupta recounts what makes this esoteric artist a very, very special man in the history of cricket, and why never again may we see one of his kind.
From turning a ball from outside the off-stump to the right of mid wicket with a sleight of his wrist, to converting a follow-on to a historic win; from driving Shane Warne inside out through the covers from the rough outside the leg stump, to extracting a one wicket victory from the jaws of defeat – everything VVS Laxman did from the crease resembled the magical.
We clapped in delight every time he wielded his willow like a wand, caressing, cajoling and convincing the ball to travel according to fancies of his gifted artist’s imagination. To us his languid, lazy, lissom elegance was like that of the conjurer on stage, evoking the impossible. He belied laws of nature and extent of mortal thought, and, along the way, never lost the luminous lustre that formed as much a part of the exhibition as the miracles transpired on the scoreboard.
And all the while, apart from confronting foreign attacks with amazing aesthetic acts, he continued his parallel war against dark magic – the wicked wizardry surrounding Indian cricket, a battle that is possible only in this singular country. Can one imagine another artist, touched by such divine inspiration, being on trial in every match for at least two-thirds of his career? But, the very, very special master had to face these challenges that for long remained much more threatening than the artillery of the opponent.
Encore, encore ...
Yet, his blade intricately sliced its way through, seldom surrendering style for utility. And still it managed to amass – nay, he never amassed, he just invoked them by flourishing wafts of his willow – close to 9,000 runs at an average of almost 46. In the long line of middle-order masters of Indian cricket, only Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid can be considered ahead of him in terms of figures and feats.
A gentle smile and lulling approach concealed the highly tempered steel that made these achievements possible. This steel was forever encased in the ingenious finery – some flashes visible only on rarest of rare occasions. As we saw when he was performing his alchemy at Mohali, turning sure-fire defeat against Australia into a remarkable one wicket win. With Pragyan Ojha almost running himself out during the final stages, the gentlest of men ever to put on flannels erupted in a tirade including a couple of expletives. That was one indication of his severe zeal to win, otherwise forever channelled into those wrists of wonder.
And this is what made him special. Like the Samurai warrior-artists of yore, he could delve in creative expression and also wield his weapon in the deadliest of battles.
Entranced as we were every time he strutted through his act on stage, rapt under the spell of genius, we used to clamour for encore. In the days of the deafening sound and mind numbing fury of Twenty20 cricket, lovers of the beauty of the noble game found solace in watching him bat.
Even as the frequency of his wizardry diminished, as the charms from his blade failed to transform into runs on the board, the ardent among us waited for the last trick to be pulled out of his hat. And now, when the final vanishing act has been announced, we cannot help but wistfully want the enchanter to re-emerge, once again bedazzling us, turning despair into ecstasy.
Reason and timing
The dwindling returns of recent times tell us that even a magician cannot stop the flow of time. For someone known for his sublime timing, the last two foreign trips hint at his being a wee bit late in executing his final stroke. The one who painted delightful impressions on the batting crease has for a while dabbled in minimalist canvases, the poetry that we saw in motion has been turned into a series of blank verses.
Perhaps he could not have delayed the announcement any further, without losing the sheen and dimming the lights that are so much a part of his craft. Perhaps his last bow should be rejoiced with loving cheers and smiles that we associate with this most glorious of performers.
Yet, something rankles. The country being what it is, with its steady flow of irrational demands stirred with uncouth spite, a board and selection committee with a penchant for making news resemble satirical spoof, was the final decision hastened for the wrong reasons? Hardly an apprentice has been groomed to step onto the stage in his wake, without stumbling in those huge unaccustomed shoes. In this scenario, were the allegations of overstaying his time too harsh and stinging for his sensitive soul to endure after years and years of selfless service?
We will hardly ever hear from the man, but we Indians do have a tradition of embittering the farewells of some of our greatest statesmen.
We can hear nothing but the eulogy for Rahul Dravid post-retirement, but for three years before his last triumphant English summer, unthinking and unedifying voices had repeatedly and raucously called for his noble head.
And although nowadays we are only too eager to point out the timeliness of Sunil Gavaskar’s retirement, mostly as a means of degrading the modern masters by comparison, those blessed with slightly stronger recall do remember the anti-over-thirty movement of the mid-eighties and the effigies of the great opener burnt in the aftermath of the defeat in the Reliance Cup semi-final.
It would be really sad if the batsman who has always been a source of exhilarating joy departs with the bitterness of hurt. But, in the fandom of India, this is to be expected.
Flirting with greatness
Whatever be the reason, the decision has been made.
With the departure of Dravid and Laxman in quick succession, Indian cricket has perhaps forever lost the perusal of mathematical arguments, grammatical structures and study of art in batsmanship. Only the epics still persist in the course through Sachin Tendulkar’s timeless march, the classical pages already soiled by the traditional Indian venom that spews forth from the undeserving.
While the memories are full of collages of joyful colour, most of them crystallised under severe heat and pressure, the innings that will forever be inseparable from Laxman is the 281-run epic at Eden Gardens, 2001. It changed not only the course of the match, but also that of history – of Indian cricket as well as his personal career.
From that miracle Test match onwards, Laxman has scored 7,915 runs at 49.77 in 114 Tests. The figures demonstrate what his career has been all about. Flirtation with greatness with his esoteric wafts of the willow, while managing to remain a joy to behold forever – each movement at the wicket an act of unsurpassed beauty.
It is this unique amalgam that emerges once in a rare generation, and will remain a gaping chasm ever after for all those who have been blessed to watch him bat.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)