With the recent retirement of VVS Laxman, two of our contributors, one Indian and one Australian, reminisce over his impact on the game.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say. I always used to scoff at this, but with VVS Laxman having announced his retirement, it is all starting to make sense.
I was among his staunchest critics during the tours of England and Australia, and with good reason. The man looked out of his depth, which was a depressing sight considering the classy way he’d toyed with attacks throughout his career. Game over man, game over. So I greeted his initial inclusion in the squad for the Tests against New Zealand with disgust. How dare he keep playing, denying younger players the chance to get some experience before the big season ahead?
But now that he’s gone, I somehow don’t care about the result any more. There is no other batsman I’d rather watch in his prime. Not Tendulkar, not Pietersen, not Gilchrist, not even Chris Martin. And while his prime has long gone, I can’t quite bring myself to accept that I’ll never see him flick one over mid-wicket, or hit a spinner over cover inside out from the rough.
The last few times I’ve seen VVS live, it’s been with an air of resignation that I’m not going to see a century. I just wanted to see one boundary. One majestic stroke, live. No-one else will remember, but at the first Test at Lord’s in 2011, he hit Chris Tremlett for three fours in a row, and, to use a cliched phrase, they were worth the price of admission alone.
The older you get, the more you realise that watching good cricket is actually more important than the result. If I’m going to put myself through watching a Test match on a grainy Internet stream of an Indian TV channel and all the relentless advertising that entails, I want to be entertained. Ultimately, I’d rather watch Laxman score 30 than most other batsmen score a century.
The 281 against Australia is still the most brutal innings I’ve ever seen, because he seemed to do it without trying. Great bowlers (and Michael Kasprowicz) bowled at him relentlessly, pushing themselves to the limit as that great Australian side did, and he just stood there, swatting them all over the place. All of this, with his side one down in the series and following on. He was famous, of course, for having a surreal ability to dominate Australia, the team who have dominated India the most over the course of his career. To listen to the likes of Bill Lawry scream “Waddaplayer!” as he caressed one through the covers emphasised the esteem with which he was held down under.
Laxman’s statistics are good, but they’re not great. A lot of batsmen, especially in the modern era, will finish with an average of 45 or better. But he is one of what I fear is a dying breed; players who genuinely enjoyed playing the game, and didn’t regard it as a “job”. And yet for all the shots, the centuries, and the cheeky smiles, my enduring image of him will be his face whenever he got out. It was always a priceless expression, one that suggested that he was so engrossed in the art of batting that getting out had never occurred to him. Invariably, it would be after he’d played an otherwise perfect shot, just straight to a fielder. There’d be a few seconds of shock, and then he’d trudge off, like a boy who’s been told to stop playing and come back inside.
On top of all that, of course, he was universally liked all over the cricketing world, and there are hardly any other cricketers who have never attracted any animosity from opposing players or fans. As an embodiment of the class that makes all of us like cricket just that little bit more than other sports, it’s hard to look past VVS. In the current atmosphere of franchises all over the world competing to see who can hit more DLF Maximums while post match presentation ceremonies in the subcontinents give out five variations of the man of the match award to accommodate all the sponsors, perhaps it’s right that the man who made watching Test cricket such a pleasure should bow out. This week I watched someone else bat, but like your average philanderer when he’s making love to his wife, I was thinking of someone else: VVS.
The commonly held idea is that if you perform well in front of Australian crowds, they will love you for it. It’s not really true though. Performing well is just the first part. To truly win over Australian audiences you firstly (and probably most importantly) have to do it with a deal of humility (which rules out the likes of Kevin Pietersen), and also with a fair degree of style and panache (which rules out Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell. In fact it rules out pretty much every English cricketer of recent memory apart from Michael Vaughan).
Players who manage to tick both boxes, though, can look forward to warm receptions around the country and the happy knowledge that any liquids thrown at them whilst they field in the deep will probably only be water, unlike those thrown at those mentioned above. Players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara were obviously fan favourites but none could honestly command the special sort of reverence that was accorded to VVS Laxman.
It was probably because he was the only player in the world who was capable of reminding us of Mark Waugh, or even suggest that he was the sort of player Mark could have been. The famous SCG Test match in 2003, where he took apart the Australian pace attack with ease, stands out in particular. In that particular game Laxman seemed to play everything well in front of his body with an effortless ease. The faster Brett Lee bowled, the more comfortable Laxman looked. He displayed that quality he shared with Mark Waugh of seemingly knowing exactly what the bowler was going to do before the bowler did himself. He was never rushed into playing a false shot, and frankly none of the Australian bowlers looked worthy of bowling to him, let alone taking his wicket.
It’s always sad to see greats retire from the game, and from that immense Indian team that was involved in some epic encounters with Australia during the first half of the last decade, somehow only Sachin now remains. But as his form on his last Australian tour showed, it was time to go, and India would be better served in finding new blood to revive their Test team. But none could ever hope to replace the legacy of VVS.