And then there was one. Of the four princes who made India the world’s best side to watch in the first decade of the 21st century, only Sachin Tendulkar – the first and greatest of them – remains. Saurav Ganguly, the tiger of Bengal, was first to leave the arena. Rahul Dravid, the classicist, departed last year. Now Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, the most artistic member of India’s most formidable quartet, has announced his retirement from international cricket.
As Cardus (who else?) wrote of Ranji, Laxman distributed his runs as largesse delivered in silk purses. If he could not claim Ranji’s aristocratic lineage, he was still, even in his own time, something of a throwback to an earlier age. As the son of Hyderabad doctors, Laxman comes from the middle-class’s upper ranks and even in the modern era elites still run to batsmanship more than bowling.
By the second half of his career, Laxman had become a test specialist. In an age cluttered with too much limited overs cricket, he played just 86 one day internationals. As Indian cricket has fallen hook, line and sinker for the alluring-yet-trashy charms of the IPL, Laxman has barely flirted with Twenty-Twenty cricket.
It seems wholly typical that, though retiring from international cricket, Laxman will return to Hyderabad to assist his struggling state side in the Ranji trophy. There is something agreeably old-fashioned about this.
Cricket’s statistics can be tweaked and filtered to make a wholly unnecessary case for Laxman’s greatness. Unnecessary because a batsman of Laxman’s ilk is about more than the accumulation of runs and records. His style is an integral part of his substance. Cardus, again, proposed an examination of greatness that Laxman passes easily. That is, would you, on discovering that Laxman was 20 not out at lunch modify your plans for the afternoon and instead scurry to the cricket to watch the great artist perform in person? Laxman, like David Gower or Adam Gilchrist, waltzes through that examination without even a drop of perspiration. (Such afternoons, of course, are all the finer for existing in stolen time and playing truant from “real life”.)
I don’t know if a pair of cricketers is sufficient to constitute a school, but the wrist-fuelled elegance of Laxman’s legside play was reminiscent of his fellow-Hyderabadi, Mohammed Azharuddin. Laxman was the more complete player, however. His drive was a liquid caress through cover that seemed effortless and, thus and of course, irresistible.
Like other players blessed with gifts of timing and finesse, Laxman’s batting was a kind of lovely magic, sweet as a sun-dappled, late-summer evening. Batsmen such as Laxman (or Gower) need an understanding public and in this the Indian has perhaps been more fortunate than the Englishman. Because, when at their best, they make batting look so easy their critics wonder why they cannot be at their best more often. This is an unfair standard to which their more methodical peers are not held.
Oddly – given his runs for Lancashire – Laxman’s record against England is ordinary. He never made a century against England. Like Richie Richardson, another batsman of flashing elegance, he was at his best against the Australians. That he should have thrived against the best side of his era yet toiled against often-ordinary English sides is one of those cricketing things that is both inexplicable and insignificant.
Laxman’s monument will forever be the 281 he made against Steve Waugh’s men at Eden Gardens in 2001. At the time it was the highest test score ever made by an Indian and it has become one of those legendary innings demanding inclusion in any list of the finest ever made. In that match, India became just the third side to win a test after following-on. It was an innings that galvanised Indian cricket too: all things now seemed possible. All these years later it comes as a minor shock to be reminded that this was just Laxman’s second test century.
For once the Indian selectors – maligned even more than selectors elsewhere – deserve some credit. They could have abandoned Laxman before his career flowered. His first 16 tests produced just 645 runs from 28 innings at an average of just 24. With no centuries. Granted, India still hoped at this stage that he might make an opening batsman but, even so, the selectors’ patience merits some praise. It is painful to consider what joys might have been lost had they not persevered with VVS.
At his best, Laxman batted with a kind of feline grace. He did not clump the bowling, he stroked it and even the ball, racing through cover or midwicket, seemed to purr with approval. Who would prefer a day of Matthew Hayden to an hour and a half of Laxman?
If his final tours of England and Australia were disappointing, Laxman retires before his tank of talent has been exhausted. One of his last truly significant innings was the undefeated 73 he compiled against Australia to steer India to a thrilling one wicket victory at Mohali. There, at the death, was Laxman screaming at Pragyan Ohja with all the raw and manic intensity of a young tyro getting quite carried away with himself. It was a splendid sight and a reminder that, like Dravid and Tendulkar, Laxman’s devotion to the team cause has always been beyond doubt.
Even a country blessed with India’s resources cannot hope to replace the likes of Dravid and Laxman easily. Their era will rightly be considered a golden age for Indian batsmanship that has enriched all of us, no matter what part of the cricketing universe we may hail from. For 15 years they have made India the most attractive batting side in the world.
And so Tendulkar, first and greatest of these Musketeers, is also the last still standing. When he departs the sun will have set on a whole era, during which India’s rise to prominence on and off the field was confirmed. It seems hard to imagine India will be blessed with a quartet of batsmen of such elegance and character again.
Again, it seems typical of Laxman’s career that he should have retired to give younger successors their opportunity even though doing so deprives him of a valedictory test match against New Zealand in his home city. That, however, would have made the match about VVS and not about the team. That did not appeal to Laxman. The contrast between this humility and the manner in which some other cricketers strut and lord themselves is pretty marked.
So farewell VVS Laxman, a very, very special talent indeed. I doubt there’s a batsman I’ve preferred watching this century. Cardus’s verdict on Woolley applies to Laxman too: “the very brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness.”