“There are several great ex-players in the commentary boxes and the press box, and every one of them gasps each time this man plays a stroke.”
Thus waxed Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain and lyrical analyst, as ‘this man’ was taking Australia’s best apart at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2004.
The first steps towards the making of the VVS Laxman legend had materialized, also at the SCG, four years back when the Hyderabadi ended an agonizing 38-month wait for his maiden Test hundred with a blistering 167. When he backed it up with that magical, mystical 281 at the Eden Gardens the following year, he established himself as the Aussie-slayer. In the 2003-04 series, he bedazzled Adelaide with 148, then re-charmed Sydney with 178, a stunning masterpiece studded with 30 shimmering fours.
In 2008, he danced his way to a hat-trick of Test tons at the SCG with an electric 109, and while he had an underwhelming tour Down Under in 2011-12 – no one knew at that point, the protagonist included, that he wouldn’t play another Test match – the SCG provided him comfort in the form of a classy 66, his highest score in eight innings.
Despite four single-digit scores in his final series marring his numbers somewhat, Laxman stacked up 1,236 runs in 15 Tests in Australia across four tours at 44.14, inclusive of four centuries. It was in keeping with Laxman’s liking for a lot of things Australian – their aggressive on-field approach, appreciative crowds, pitches that assisted his style of batting, and outfields that encouraged the progress of the ball to the boundary boards.
Laxman’s dalliance with Australia dates back to his Under-19 days. Against a strong attack that included Matthew Nicholson, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Andrew Symonds, he produced scores of 88*, 5, 151*, 77, 36 and 84 to massively impress coach Sandeep Patil and set himself up as the new rising star from the Indian stable of outstanding batsmen.
“There was a warm-up game in Hyderabad (before the three-match ‘Test’ series) which we lost by an innings,” Laxman almost winces as he recalls that unpleasant encounter. “I hadn’t faced such pace, it was my first exposure to such quality pace bowling. But I practiced with wet tennis balls and plastic balls between the warm-up game and the ‘Tests’, and that played a big part in my having a very good ‘Test’ series.”
Nearly 28% (2,434) of Laxman’s 8,781 runs came against Australia, in 21.64% of his 134 Test matches. His average against the Aussies, by a mile the strongest unit for a majority of his playing career, stands at 49.67, nearly four runs more than his career average of 45.97. He searches for words as you ask him why he relished his contests with the Australians. “It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint one reason why you have so much success against a particular opposition, but I have a long history with Australia and I am sure that has something to do with it. Australia always play to win, and they are so supremely focussed and hard-nosed that you have to constantly be on your toes,” he says.
“Unless you are at less than your best, you will be found out. That’s something that has always appealed to me. I relished going to battle knowing that I had to be on top of my game. Australia also attack you no matter what the situation, so as a batsman, it suited my game because I could hit boundaries and score quickly.”
In his recently released autobiography 281 and Beyond, Laxman offers further insight into what made him tick in Australia. “Especially when I played Australia in Australia, I felt every innings was an opportunity to exhibit my talent. I loved their attacking style, I relished the quick outfields that provided value for shots even on the vast grounds. I thrived on the pace and bounce that didn’t require me to generate my own power,” he writes.
“When you experience that pleasure and all the strokes in your repertoire flow off the middle of the bat, you get into a zone where you cut out all distractions—the match situation and the scoreboard are nothing if not distractions. When we were in trouble as a team, I was blessed with the gift of taking these out of the equation.”
While his history-churning 281 is hailed as his greatest innings, Laxman himself places 167 at the top of his glittering array of riches. “Usually in a cricketer’s career, there comes a point when everything you plan works your way,” he says, without melodrama, as his eyes wander to a place that only he can see. “I was practicing and training hard but not able to convert my efforts into performances. Going into that second innings in Sydney, I told myself that I must not allow myself to think about the result but instead concentrate on the process. I was mindful it was my last innings in Australia (on that tour of 1999-2000). And as the innings progressed, I went into a zone where I was just reacting to the ball and not thinking what happened before or what will happen later. In sporting terms, people talk about being in the ‘zone’. That was the first time I experienced the feeling of being in the ‘zone’.
“The experience of one good innings can do wonders to your mindset,” he explains. “Once you have been in the ‘zone’, you can get there repeatedly. You know you have done well once, you understand why that innings happened. You analyse what your preparation was, what your mindset was, what your approach was. You go back to that same preparation physically and mentally as often as possible.
“As for that knock, as much as the runs I made, it was the manner in which I made them that gave me great satisfaction and confidence. That 167 has to be the defining knock; it convinced me that I could play the best in the business, and that I could do it successfully in all conditions. It was also my first Test hundred. As a batsman, getting to your first Test hundred is extremely important. It gave me the confidence and the belief that I belong at the highest level.”
Outside India, Laxman’s favourite hunting ground has to be the SCG, where in four Tests, he stacked up 549 runs at 78.42. “Whenever I entered the ground, I felt positive vibes. Just the feel of that ground, even though it changed a bit over the years, that excited me. I used to watch matches at the SCG on television as a youngster, and there was a thrill to waking up in the morning, listening to the commentary, watching the action unfold. Suddenly, when you are out there at the same ground, you have to pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming.
“Right from childhood, I enjoyed matches that took place in Australia. Sydney was a special ground even before I started playing competitive cricket. And when you get your first Test hundred there, it becomes even more special. Every time I returned there after the 167, it took me back to that day, and the way I got that hundred. You know at the back of your mind that this is a different place for you, it has played such a huge part in your journey. Also, Sydney is one of my favourite places to visit, I just enjoy being in that place. The combination of Sydney and the SCG, it was always a heady one.”
That heady combination, Laxman reveals, played a big part in his success there. “It is not that I felt that runs or hundreds were there for the taking, but I believe that your mind has to be in a good space for you to be able to give your best. Whenever I walked on to that ground, my mind was always in a good space, it was never cluttered. I was always positive and confident, that inner feeling was there that I would get runs here.
“In fact, I got that vibe at all the grounds in Australia except perhaps, unfortunately, the iconic MCG. Right from the first time I went to Melbourne, I would contract hay fever before the start of the match. That apart, though, I thoroughly enjoyed travelling to and playing in Australia.”
Australians love nothing more than a competitor, and even as he was hurting their teams, his fan-base around the country grew exponentially. “It was fantastic,” he smiles, allowing himself the equivalent of a pat on the back. “I always felt that Australians as such are very sporting and they acknowledge good performances, even if they come against their team. Right from their Prime Minister to the youngest Australian cricket follower, they always had good things to say about players who did well. And it was a very honest expression from them. From the moment I got that 167, and followed it up with 281 the next year, everyone took notice -- that they were two special knocks against their team.
“I am very satisfied that those two knocks came against Australia because that Australian team was probably the best team of our generation, when we played the game. It is almost comparable to the West Indies team led by Clive Lloyd in the 1970s and 1980s, the way they dominated world cricket. I made my debut in 1996 – from 1996 to about 2008-09, that Australian team was probably the best, and to get those knocks against the best makes you very contented because when you are playing at the international level, you want to always perform against the best bowlers in world cricket.”
Australia still possess a potent attack – Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon – but Laxman expects Virat Kohli’s men to have a rip-roaring time in the four-Test series starting in Adelaide on December 6. Australian cricket is in a shambles; the ball-tampering scandal of Cape Town in March has claimed numerous on-field and administrative victims, not least the captain/vice-captain duo of Steve Smith and David Warner respectively, and young opener Cameron Bancroft, all of them serving suspensions.
It isn’t for this reason alone, however, that Laxman installs India as the favourites in Australia for the first time in nearly three decades. “Absolutely, India will start favourites in the Test series,” he agrees animatedly. “I feel that it is not only because Steve Smith and Warner are not there. But it is because this Indian side has the quality, and it is a settled side. The Australian side doesn’t look a settled bunch, especially in the batting department. Yes, they will miss Warner and Steve Smith, but that confidence level, the attitude and the approach you expect of an Australian player, an Australian team -- the character of the Australian sides against whom I played -- that character is not obvious in this Australian team.
“That’s why I feel that India have got a big chance because they are a settled unit and they will be confident. I firmly believe that the first Test will be most crucial. If the first Test goes in India’s favour and the Indian batsmen get amongst the runs, then I think it will be a series which India will win comfortably.”
Several of India’s top order have played Test cricket in Australia previously. That’s another reason, Laxman is convinced, the visitors will fill their boots. “I am very confident that they will do well, because there is a lot of experience now,” he notes. “I always feel that the second tour of Australia becomes easier because you know what to expect, and you can prepare accordingly. There is a huge change from when you play in India to Australia – the pitches are quicker and there is extra bounce, even though the tracks in Australia have slowed down compared to 1999. As the years have progressed, I feel the surfaces have slowed down. Having said that, with the experience and quality in this Indian batting line-up, I would be really surprised if they don’t score heavily on this tour.”
On away tours of South Africa and England this year, India tended to rely very heavily on their captain. Virat Kohli did more than his bit in both Test series, but with only sporadic support forthcoming, India surrendered both outings, 1-2 and 1-4 respectively. Laxman expects the batting group to be more consistent this time around.
“I don’t think we should be dependent on Kohli. Particularly in England, we were overly dependent on Virat scoring, but I don’t think we should so be because there is enough class and quality in this Indian batting line-up. It’s just about going out and playing to their potential. There is class from KL Rahul, you have got Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma. All of them are experienced, and there is more class in the form of the relatively new Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant and (Hanuma) Vihari. I will be really surprised if they don’t score heavily. They should not be thinking that they are overly dependent on Virat Kohli.”
Shaw at the top of the tree and Pant at No. 6 or No. 7 offer pretty much the same dynamics as Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni did at those respective positions. Mindful not to venture even close to the comparison game, Laxman had pearls of wisdom for the teenager from Mumbai and the 21-year-old stumper from Delhi. “That’s what I would advise both these guys, to learn from Dhoni and Viru. A Prithvi Shaw should learn from how Viru approached his batting. I have never seen a more destructive batsman than Viru. And I have never seen a cleaner hitter or someone who is more powerful than Dhoni at No. 7.
“But what’s important for Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant is to learn from them how they built their innings and how they approached Test match innings while playing their natural game. That will be so important. While you should go out and express yourself and play with a lot of freedom, Prithvi should realise that Sehwag was successful because he focussed on playing high-percentage shots and playing to his strengths. And Pant can take note of how MS used to play to the situation and have total control over his instincts based on what the team required.”
India’s core fast-bowling group is now more packed, more snappy, more dangerous and more potent than at any other time in their history. There are a host of bowlers who bowl upwards of 140 kmph on a consistent basis – Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma – and they are also massively skilled, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar probably the top gun in that regard.
The quicks had a wonderful time in South Africa and England, where there was help from both the atmosphere and the pitches. Australia, and the Kookaburra ball, will offer a sterner challenge, Laxman warns. “I think it will be not as easy for the fast bowlers as it was in South African and English conditions. We have to wait and see, but in South Africa and England, there was a lot of help for the fast bowlers. Batsmen from both sides struggled. Especially in South Africa, the wickets were very challenging in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Even in England, there was enough help for fast bowlers.
“In Australia, you can get either good batting wickets, or you can get wickets which will help the fast bowlers. Looking at the quality of this fast bowling group, the best thing is that all of them have got enough pace. If you don’t have pace, then (assistance from) the wicket or the conditions will become very important. But if you have pace as your weapon and along with pace, you are also skillful, then irrespective of the wicket, you can plan the dismissal of a batsman. I feel that this bowling attack, all of them have pace. That’s the advantage this attack will have, irrespective of what conditions are available.”