On the night of the opening ceremony of the 2009 IPL in Cape Town, South Africa, some of the Indian players had to assemble, of all places, in the media centre of the Newlands cricket ground. It was an awkward arrangement. Indian players and journalists have always shared an uneasy relationship. Their obligatory interactions take place at designated times and places, like those between a divorced spouse and his or her child. When by chance these two worlds collide anywhere else, no one quite knows what to say. At the Newlands media centre, the players seemed like Wall Street princelings tolerating a blue collar waiting room because their limos had broken down. Most did not even meet the eyes of the reporters. When someone made small talk, the players just about grunted back in acknowledgment. At some point, a short man with mischievous eyes and curly hair strolled in. Sizing up the situation, he headed towards a tall slim man in a far corner overlooking the floodlit field. Crossing the width of the room, Sachin Tendulkar tapped VVS Laxman on his shoulder and the two chatted the wait away, their backs to the rest of the world.
Maybe Tendulkar sought Laxman out because he wanted to learn to say ‘Boost is the secret of my energy’ in Telugu, but some part of it was surely the respect and affinity he felt for VVS. It was evident in the moment. Of the Big Four, Laxman was the most stylish and least threatening, evoking feelings of admiration and fondness among teammates. Ganguly was the piss-and-vinegar leader, Tendulkar had the aura and numbers, Dravid the discipline and consistency, Laxman had the flair. His height and leanness added to his elegance. And it wasn’t just aesthetics. It was aesthetics when the stakes were high. Many of Laxman’s memorable knocks came in the second innings and won India tough matches. That is why when the phone dinged with an email from the Indian cricket board announcing Laxman’s retirement last Saturday, it left a wound on the day. Check your calendar. Maybe 18 August still has some congealed blood on it.
(Half an hour later it did not matter a whit that Laxman had retired. India, where politicians make a fortune sucking life out of their countrymen, does that to you.)
Along with the temporary gloom of Laxman’s retirement, however, you also felt puzzlement. Why were selectors being blamed when they had picked Laxman for the series against New Zealand? And why, despite being picked, did Laxman announce retirement? According to one regular on the Indian cricket beat, Laxman had been given the message that it would be difficult to retain him for the series against England, which follows the one against New Zealand. Not wanting favours, Laxman turned down New Zealand as well. The selectors’ mistake, it seems, was in not being brave and open enough on the subject with the player earlier on. They did not want to upset a star and everything that comes along with that, like his state association.
Laxman’s retirement was the manifestation of a lesser known dimension of his personality, a byproduct of the mental toughness that enabled him to play those great innings. Like anybody who is good at anything, he too has an ego. And the ego had been hurt. Laxman says he will not regret the decision to retire. But that may be hard to pull off. A few months down the line, closure might elude him, and Laxman might wonder if he should have waited for the opportunity to take a proper bow. Retirements can be tricky for both players and selectors. One hopes that at the very least, both sides learn a few things from the Laxman episode. The selectors, as Ganguly said, need to communicate better with players. The players need to be honest and find the right balance between their own desires and the future of the team.
Laxman came into the side during one of the most fraught phases of Indian cricket. Things were tense between Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin, Laxman’s state mate and fellow ustad of wristy batting. Tendulkar was the captain at the start of Laxman’s India career but later he handed the reins back to Azhar. Then the match-fixing scandal broke. Famous players were suspected of throwing matches or parts of them for money. On the field, India remained vulnerable overseas. The arrival of Laxman, a man of talent and possessing a genial smile only those without malice can have, brought hope for the future. He took time to score his first hundred, but he didn’t take time to prove himself in crunch situations. In his debut Test, against a South Africa that included Allan Donald, he scored 51 in the second innings to help India win the low-scoring battle. That 51 was the highest personal score from either side in the second innings. By the time he got his first hundred, after over three years in international cricket, he had five fifties to his credit, including a 95 against Australia at the Eden Gardens. Having established his grit credentials early on had given him confidence and allowed him to flower into a quality player.
Along the way came the 281. Such was the authority of that knock that it is hard to believe it was only his second Test century. In Laxman’s farewell press conference, he seemed to want to underplay the innings. It’s possible he doesn’t want that one effort to overshadow everything else he did. Artists are greedy that way. They want you to remember everything they did. But Michael Jackson is always going to be remembered mainly for Thriller. And Laxman for that 281. A singular performance of that magnitude and quality is both a curse and a boon. A curse because it will overshadow everything else you did, a boon because just that one performance will make you immortal.
Try as you might you cannot avoid mentioning wristiness when talking about Laxman. It was his USP, the voice, of his batting, or ‘batsmanship’ as the purists might prefer. Dhoni, who at one point would use metaphors from the world of cars to speak about the Indian team, might have wondered what lubricant Laxman used for his wrists. But there were two other equally enjoyable parts of Laxman’s batting—one was the way he swivelled at his hips for a pull and the other his ability to drive for four deliveries even when he was not up to the pitch of the ball. For him, running between the wickets was a weak area as was the corridor outside the off stump. Also, he did not succeed in the quicker formats of the game. But what he achieved, and the joys his cricket provided, outweighed what he did not.