“Not in his fascinating collection of strokes, nor in his frank and open execution merely, lay the charm; it was a man playing away a power which was himself rather than in him …”
That was how, a hundred years ago, A.E. Knight of Leicestershire and England described Victor Trumper, but who would disagree with it as a description of Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, with or without the back injury that forced him even further down the order, restricted his range of movement and caused him to use a runner in the dramatic run chase in the final innings of the first Test against Australia in Mohali that took place earlier this week.
It is a bright star indeed that can find notice in a constellation where Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulka shine, but Knight’s definition of Trumper’s difference explains why Laxman nevertheless illuminates the sky.
“Dada”, “The Wall” and “God” all in their way and to the highest degree play ‘away a power that is in them’. The one with no ‘nick-name’ plays ‘away a power which is himself’ – an intriguing and discerning difference.
Here are some observations: at the crease Laxman is perfectly still. If we must find a trigger then it will be in something as imperceptible and miniscule as a blink, a discrete tightening and relaxing of the grip or a slight cock of the wrist.
He sees the ball early and well, judging length to perfection and therefore moving without hurry into a precisely positioned and wonderfully firm base in which skeleton and musculature form a bastion of a two legged tripod worthy of any Zen master (as illustrated by the photograph at the top of the page).
He times the ball extremely well, demonstrating that the fine motor movements that direct the detailed execution of shots are as skilful as the large ones which have built the strong foundation.
He watches the ball at the point of contact through the back of the bat, a surprisingly important technique adopted by the best tennis players and explained by Third Man in a posting on see-thru bats here.
He plays more shots than most modern batsmen with a dominant top hand and with both hands at the top of the handle in a way which increases the length of the levers, but is used now by very few batsmen who reply much more on the bottom hand. Yet from that grip he still has the strength to whip the ball with the that bottom hand when necessary to find wider angles of the leg side.
He is able to make the telling fifty as well as the huge score. His 281 against Australia at Kolkata is justifiably celebrated but less well remembered were the two fifties scored in the final Test of that series at Chennai and the 51 he made on debut when he came in against South Africa in Ahmedabad at 61 for 4, watched Dravid depart soon after. There are countless more match-saving or match-winning sub-hundreds played on tormenting surfaces that had dismantled the top order.
He can bat with the tail in a way that perhaps only Sobers has equalled. It is a special person who has the self belief, phlegm and dedication to his team to accept and relish the No 6 position.
In the Ahmedabad match mentioned above he inspired and empowered the tail in taking the score up to 190 when he was eighth man out on a wicket where the Spring Box were subsequently bowled out for 105 in the final innings.
All this was surely but a preparation for the innings on 5th October. He came in at 76 for 5 when India required 216 to win. Had a partnership with Tendulka of 43, which appeared to be taking India to victory. Watched as 4 batsmen went meekly at the other end and when India looked beaten still a daunting 92 runs short of their target with only Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha to keep him company. Went quietly, resiliently, even angrily at times when the running looked fraught with confusion, but always capably about his task in a trance-like state of focus. Watched as, with just 6 to win, Ojha, bewildered by a huge Australian appeal, appeared to wander down the wicket giving Steven Smith just yards away the chance to run him out.
Time appeared to stand still, then, the ball missed the stumps and gifted India four overthrows. Two balls later it was all over as Ohja played it down to third man for the two that sealed victory in one of the closest and most dramatic Tests of all time.
How thoroughly Relaxman, then, that VVS did not at the end score the winning runs nor was he named Man of the Match which went to Zaheer Khan for his 8 wicket haul in the match.
If Test cricket has moved a step closer to regain the support of Indian spectators over shorter forms of the game, it will be because of this relaxed man playing away a power which was himself.