The Scholar Seeks. The Artist finds.
Sachin Tendulkar, age 24, was battling his way to immortality- sandstorm at one end and a bewildered Australian attack at the other end. Nothing and nobody, it seemed, was going to halt his march towards what seemed rightfully his: pure cricketing greatness.
Except the man at the other end- a young man, at the beginning of his stopgap career, who was trying his best to assist his ‘senior’ partner Tendulkar.
The man was probably the same age as Sachin, but he resembled a baby thrown into the deep end of a pool.
It was April 24th, 1998. Sharjah. One of two cold desert nights that no Indian cricket fan will ever forget. Till date, no Australian player who was part of the team that propelled Sachin Tendulkar to a living legend status, will ever be able to forget what hit them. It wasn’t the sand. It was the arrival of a boy destined for great things- on the world stage. They may have totally forgotten that they actually won one of those two games, the inconsequential semi-final for them it was- but the young man at the other end who tried his best to keep up with a frantic Sachin at the crease, could have very well altered the path of Sachin Tendulkar’s career. And the history of Planet Earth, at that.
Vangipurappa Venkata Sai Laxman, the non-striker and nervous spectator, almost ran out his partner not once but almost twice that night. Many will remember Sachin screaming out to his languid lazy-looking lad to move those feet faster- eyes blazing, his voice as shrill as ever: ‘Dhyaan de na, jaldi bhaag re!’ (pay attention and please run fast).
But VVS, the lad, decided not to change the destiny of Indian cricket that night. He probably wanted Sachin to take the world stage by storm that night, so that he could forever knock around outside the limelight- away from the glare. He ran his heart out. He learned as much as he could. And he played, almost with a premonition of greatness at hand. Support now, arrive later. He was yet to be that very, very special player. And fortunately, he took his time.
As much as he tried, Eden Gardens 2001, was never in his hands. Neither was Sydney, before that. Or Nagpur, Brisbane and Galle after that. VVS arrived soon enough. It was only a matter of time, some said. Adjectives flowed. Grace was reborn. Beauty was back in style. But all along, he was still at the crease. He arrived in a style that no Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag or Ganguly could ever match. He almost made me wonder what Sachin Tendulkar, sitting in that dressing room, watching the world’s greatest innings, was actually thinking. Is this the same boy I hustled up at Sharjah that night? Really? Naw, it couldn’t be. But if he is….*wry smile*
VVS Laxman wins India Test matches- he is not content with a simple draw or rescue effort. Most importantly, he wins them from the point of no return. He wins them in a manner that keeps India from constantly breaking down into the fragments they were in the 90s. He shepherds the worst tail-order in the world. And he leaves. As simple as that. And just to make sure that he NEVER is mentioned in the same breath as Sachin or Dravid, he goes on to fail in a couple of inconsequential test matches against lesser teams, just so that the country and the world forgets about his presence. And then he peaks back onto the stage, shyly. He grows on you, plays master for a bit, struts his stuff, and walks off. His hat, though, remains on that stage. He also makes sure of the fact that he owns the most important and delicious half-centuries in world cricket. Never has 50 runs looked so good, and never has those runs mattered more in the context of a series or even an era. It is simple to blame him for not going on and getting those big ones, but would he really be VVS Laxman then? His continuous ability to fall short of that status, that pedestal, is precisely the reason he has preserved his much-sought identity. His is also the most disposable position in the side, that tricky number 5 slot in the batting order- where it takes not more than a Sehwag blitz or a Sachin special to derail all hopes of making a difference. Time and again, a failure of VVS Laxman makes him the most disposable member of that batting line-up, but time and again, VVS flicks his wrists and adjusts his thigh-pad while providing the sporting version of porn to us test purists. And then, he relaxes in second slip, and makes a catch look like it is the next big thing after coma-induced paralysis. Why, he was even forgiven for being part of a colossal batting failure in England recently. And that, itself, is a minor victory for the man. Nobody blamed him. They blamed ‘everyone’.
When VVS Laxman made his displeasure known to Pragyan Ojha during ‘that’ test match against Australia, while displaying the rarest part of his colorful vocabulary to the world, memories of that fateful night in Sharjah rushed back. Pragyan Ojha could have very well declared himself the next VVS, considering the fact that it was exactly what Sachin did to VVS in 1998, but this was no passing of baton event. There was no baton. There was never an immortal aura. There was nothing to pass, ever. One hardly sees VVS looking on, years later, at the best left-arm off spinner in the world, gleefully whispering to his wife that ‘Look, I did that to him.’ Nothing he ever touches will turn to gold. Gold is what he gives us glimpses of, a rare kind of gold that not even Dravid has teased us with.
The young brigade, some say, has been kept waiting for years because of the sheer stubbornness and desire of the old boys in the squad- the same young brigade that replaced VVS Laxman for the 2003 World Cup and then the 2007 World Cup. After that 2001 innings, most say, that there was no way to go but down. How could one possibly match up to that divine effort? When possibly asked this question, I can almost imagine the man shrugging and smiling the widest smile in the Indian team- while saying that he is happy ‘doing his job for now’. His job, though, is probably the toughest in World Cricket- that of constantly trying to replicate a man that was once him for more than 1.5 straight days.
He has done it, to his credit, quite successfully- over the last 11.5 years, bit by bit, piece by silken piece. For some reason, Laxman has always looked, walked and played like he was 35. He was probably born like that. His body language oozes control and laziness in equal doses, and it is only appropriate that when one googles up images of VVS Laxman, there are NONE that show him as a young starry-eyed kid. Face it, he has always been old. And so so wise.
If one asks Roger Federer enough about who his cricket-doppelganger could be, and if he knows the sport well enough, his immediate answer would include the names Mark Waugh and VVS Laxman. The only difference being- that Federer achieved immortality and proved to be that once-in-a-lifetime kind of tennis player. A living legend, the greatest of all time and, blah, blah.
Thankfully, VVS Laxman hasn’t proved that yet. And he is mighty happy keeping it that way.
For the record, Laxman’s answer to Sachin that night, if looked at from a philosophical perspective- was proof enough of what was to come over the years:
‘Sunai nahi de raha…bahut awaaz hai…’ (Can’t hear you, too much noise)