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January 5, 2000


India Down Under

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Storm after the calm

Harsha Bhogle

As he walked out to bat for India on Tuesday evening, there were a couple of storms occupying VVS Laxman’s mind. The thunderstorm expected to sweep Sydney was the lesser of the two.

VVS Laxman His tour, which had started so promisingly, had tapered away alarmingly. Dropped from the one-day side, he had given himself two shots for a future in Indian cricket. The first ended embarassingly when a bouncer from Brett Lee didn’t rise as much as he thought it would and he gloved a catch into the slips. Now the second, surely the last, chance was upon him.

It was a daunting scenario. Australia had declared 402 ahead, their fast bowlers were on fire and it was getting overcast. As he collected his gear, Laxman realised that this was probably the last time he would be in an Indian dressing room. Thrust in an unfamiliar situation, he had tried as hard as he could. He had tried to dig in, to get behind the line, to be the opener India thought he could be. By his standards, and those of international cricket, he had failed. It wouldn’t matter any more that he should probably not have opened the innings in the first place.

Laxman had always been a strokeplayer; you could see it in the punch that his shots carried. Now, he told himself, he would play them. Many years earlier, as a young man of 19, he had played shots all around the wicket against an 18 year old called Brett Lee. It was a nice thought to carry onto the ground.

It was to be the thought that ignited one of the greatest innings I have seen. The gravediggers in his mind soon vanished as shots rang around the Sydney Cricket Ground like an army on the rampage. Only one man was firing them. Even the clouds above cleared, the thunderstorm that had promised so much on computer screens just evaporated.

There was an early wake-up call though that convinced him that to weave and to sway would not get him too far. A short ball from Glenn McGrath clattered into the grill of his helmet and did enough to land a painful blow on the jaw. Realising there wasn’t enough bounce, he decided he would pull anything that was short.

And indeed it was the pull that was the defining shot of his innings. Few Indian batsmen play that shot well but Laxman seemed to stand up and wait for it. In between there were some gorgeous cover drives and one moment of luck when a McGrath no-ball took the edge. But that was soon forgotten and when Warne came on, he showed the kind of footwork that India’s batsmen had ignored. There was one breathtaking hit that almost cleared long on but it was his trademark flicks through mid-wicket that confirmed the class that so many of us were convinced he had. It is the shot of a good player and it is the shot with which he had announced himself in the Test match at Calcutta in March 1998.

The initial sense of disbelief around the stadium soon gave way to admiration and each shot was followed by polite applause. At 91, came what I believe was a crucial element of the innings. He had fallen short before but on the threshold of a major landmark, he did not baulk. Lee tried the yorker, it was marginally short and was driven in style to the cover boundary. Lee dug it in short and he stood up and pulled through mid-wicket. And then a flick behind square brought up the century that might well change his life forever.

He kept going though; there was too much to make up for and lost in the number of boundaries he scored was the fact that Australia saved many through some excellent fielding. One of those came off what I thought was the shot of the innings. Fleming dropped only marginally short and Laxman seemed merely to push. The shot carried no follow-through but Lee at mid-off soon had to change gear and dive full length to cut it off. A worthy shot had met a worthy defender and between them, they produced the moment of the innings.

When he fell for 167 in worsening light, he had only played 198 balls against the best attack in world cricket, had hit 27 boundaries and only 70 runs had come from other bats. In the pavilion Rahul Dravid thought he had at last seen the definition of the expression “in the zone”. And in the press box, Dicky Rutnagar, who six years ago had said Laxman was the best young batsman in the country, and who has seen hundreds of Test matches over forty years, thought it was among the best he had ever seen.

In informal conversations, his team-mates were overflowing in their praise. Sourav Ganguly, who had been here in 1991-92, thought it merited comparison with Tendulkar’s century in Perth. And Dravid was quite happy to put it alongside the Tendulkar-Azharuddin show in Capetown a couple of years ago.

This is not hyperbole. The innings needs to be looked at in the light of what had come before in the series, against the complete domination that the Australian fast bowlers had established. Laxman reversed the trend and he did it not by chipping away but by giving in the manner in which he had got. He did not slog, there was no wild throwing of the bat at wide balls; at all times it was a cultured innings. There was merit too in the manner in which he went on and completed a big hundred.

What a pity it had to be played in a losing cause. What a pity these were the dying embers of a forgettable tour. This innings must only momentarily blind us to the reality beneath for when the mist clears, it will only reveal rubble.

But what joy to stay blinded for a while. As I close my eyes, I can see that a good batsman and a good man has found a place in the world.

Harsha Bhogle

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