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How the 'Fireman' won the Kingsmead Test

Trevor Chesterfield

Updated: December 30, 2010, 4:53 PM IST
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If the indelible image of India's victory at Kingsmead is all about the Shanthakumaran Sreesanth delivery that dismissed Jacques Kallis, think again, Bhai.

Such impressions, captivating as they are, falsely camouflage the role of Vangipurappu Laxman, aka the Fireman from Hyderabad. In times of uncertainty and the team's batting resources are about to be consumed by raging fires of doubt, India look to no one other than the "Fireman" to quell the raging blaze.

All too often Laxman has been forced to lurk forgotten in the shadows of Rahul Dravid "The Wall", Sachin Tendulkar the "Little Master" and until he retired, Sourav Ganguly's "Dada" persona. As such he was overlooked until there was a need to remember how the fire was tamed and who did it. This is when the media, as a belated sign of recognition, throw up their usual cliches of Very Very Special, based on the combination of his initials.
It is a question rarely asked - often ignored when it is - but just when will the India media pay the sort of homage to the shy "Fireman from Hyderabad" they do when dishing out tributes to The Wall, Little Master and Dada?

Three times this past year Laxman - twice while nursing agonising back spasms - has answered an urgent management summons to put out the fires caused by hostile bowling, earning three victories and launching a regarded to save the side from embarrassment.

He played major roles as far apart as Colombo, Mohali and now Durban, while it was with Harbhajan Singh at Motera (Ahmedabad), he used his gritty, yet silky elegance and fashionable footwork to salvage a reputation and inspire on the way, a debut century from Harbhajan against New Zealand. This is when at one stage the Kiwis sought to wrench an improbable victory as the underpowered lowly-ranked tourists took on the Test ranked number one.

So no, it wasn't Sreesanth's brute of a delivery that would have undone any batsman as it did Kallis, which flashes across the memory landscape. It is that of Laxman the "Fireman" putting out the inferno threatening to engulf the tourists.

Sure, Kallis is the one man South Africa knew could help them hunt down the target needed at the start of day four to take a 2-0 series lead. Getting his wicket was going to be a matter of celebrations in the Indian dressing-room.

For South Africa, a victory at Kingsmead would have rattled the rankings lists. It would have left India doubtful and insecure, heading for Newlands in Cape Town knowing a third defeat and a 3-0 series loss would see the hosts assume the mantle as the number one Test nation and India relegated to two, or possibly three should England win The Ashes 3-1.

If anyone carefully analyses the batting by either side at Kingsmead and in what were often difficult batting conditions, where the bowlers held the advantage for long periods, the Fireman was the only batsman to cross the half-century line and this explains the difference between his innings of 96 in the second innings and the rest of the batsmen in both sides.

South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, began his second innings with a message to thump the bowling around; he set off after the target of 303 with confidence in his attacking display. It is why the pull shot is one which can undo so many batsmen in conditions as these.

His one miscalculation was the width of the ball from interception; something which happens to the best of the players. Tendulkar's second innings dismissal, along with those of Dravid and Virender Sehwag are typical examples of how the bowlers knew that their patience would be rewarded as they exploited conditions and probed for weaknesses.

Laxman, however, in his role as the fireman, has doused many of the flames licking merrily at the subconscious of others. In the first innings it needed a stunning catch by Lenwabo Tsotsobe off Dale Steyn's bowling to send him on his way. His classic, effortless stroke-play assassinated midlife by one of three brilliant catches that make Test cricket the perfect game it is.

How different though are the comments coming out of Durban to those of Centurion where in the aftermath of India's heavy defeat, the nation's often obsessively cult orientated and sycophant media did its best to use Tendulkar fiftieth Test century as camouflage to hide the size of such a humiliating defeat.

As usual, the TV media fawned over the three-figure innings with a desperation which used the typical Machiavellian strategy to paper over their heaviest defeat by a South African side. Not at all smart streetwise thinking and caught in the crossfire of this over-emotional hyped splurge is a crowd of highly talented scribes.

Unfortunately, the television (electronic) reporters and their editors it seems didn't enjoy the thought of explaining to their millions of viewers (and readers) how such a landmark innings failed to prevent India losing the Test by such a wide margin. It was the old story of "denial of defeat".

In a sense, India's workmanlike victory at Kingsmead restored a sense of reality to the way India's media machine largely handled the reports of the second Test. It was so unfortunate how this largely suggests if there is no Tendulkar story, it is not worth reporting.

Such were the scenes at Centurion, following Tendulkar's landmark Test century, reality was replaced by a misplaced perception; where the story of humbling defeat was switched by the type of idealism and hero-worshiping the masses enjoy. As with any good government propaganda, the Tendulkar century was used as a ploy by the television networks to cover the team's embarrassing defeat.

Having a strategy is one thing, having the skills to apply it and then adhere to it another. India decided on a lengthy batting order at the expense of an extra bowler believing that the way to beat South Africa was with pressure of runs. With the top-order failing both innings, it is where the Fireman came to the rescue.

Unfortunately it is the Sreesanth dismissal of Kallis that is replayed, not the gritty yet graceful sight of the Laxman cover-drive, and more is the pity.

First Published: December 30, 2010, 4:53 PM IST

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