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Saturday, July 01, 2006

The case of Laxman

Take that 281 at Eden Gardens and lock it up. Wrap it preciously in satin, place it securely in a treasure chest, and don’t look back at it. At least not until the end of VVS Laxman’s international career.

Laxman, the man, the cricketer, the victimised, needs to be freed from the expectations that succeed that breathtaking innings. An innings that made us proud to be Indians, for India brought Australia to their knees in stunning fashion. This was the Australia of 16 successive victories humbled by the most gentle craftsmen, soft of hand but brutal in mastery.

After Laxman's golden run against Australia, Steve Waugh said: “If you get [Rahul] Dravid, great. If you get Sachin [Tendulkar], brilliant. If you get [VVS] Laxman, it's a miracle.” No miracle this, for Laxman now finds himself caught between the past and the future. Adam Gilchrist wondered aloud: "Everytime he plays against us he comes up with something special and the next thing we read after the series is he is dropped! It leaves me completely bewildered."

Forget the irony and brush aside the weighty expectations of a domestic giant -Laxman’s career has been a predicament. His early years in international cricket were riddled with an urge to bat at one-drop met with a job he didn’t want – the opener’s. He didn’t plead any different, but he shuffled and twitched – “I always had the feeling that I was trying to do something which I'm not really made for” - each time he was thrust in that spot. There was one whirlwind act of defiance, though, which compounded the public’s confusion over this man called Laxman. Few can claim to have flayed Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne to all corners of the Sydney Cricket Ground for a 198-ball 167.

Scratchy displays against South Africa and Zimbabwe at home came in between a fantastic domestic season. In 2000-01, Laxman was the king of the Indian domestic circuit. Nine hundreds in nine games – a run that saw him become the first to score two triple hundreds in Ranji cricket – earned him a spot against the touring Australians in 2001. Again, he said that he wanted to be in the middle order, or at No.3. His wish was granted, and a tour de force was unleashed. No side following on as far behind as 274 runs had ever come back to win a Test match, but Laxman changed all that.

“This is only the beginning,” he said after that Kolkata epic. "This success of mine is only a base on which I have to build my career". Laxman promised to be one to score runs involuntarily, on any track, against all opposition. What happened to that punitive blade there after remains a head-scrather, in many ways.

And today, in 2006, the predicament continues. When India have opted for an extra bowler, Laxman’s head has been first on the block. But with his a hundred and a fifty in the recent St Lucia Test against West Indies, he has done much to resurrect his image. These were two supreme knocks; in his hundred, there was a conscious effort to play straight and with bat and pad together. He read the pitch perfectly, waited for the ball to come onto him, and drove with aplomb.

Is there life after Sydney and Adelaide? What does one make of stonewall efforts at Bulawayo, Kolkata and Chandigarh? His hundred at St Kitts was an effort dripping in perseverance, but there still remains that lingering doubt: will it be enough for Laxman? Can he ride on that performance and stay in the groove?

Not even Laxman would know, it seems.

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