VVS Laxman 281, India v Australia, 2001

452 DELIVERIES, 44 FOURS

INDIA V AUSTRALIA, 2ND TEST, KOLKATA, 2001
Australia 445 (S Waugh 110; Harbhajan 7-123) & 212 (Hayden 67; Harbhajan 6-73) lost to India 171 (Laxman 59; McGrath 4-18) & 657-7dec (f/o) (Laxman 281, Dravid 180) by 171 runs

OPPOSITION ATTACK: Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne, Michael Kasprowicz, Mark Waugh

By the time VVS Laxman arrived at Eden Gardens for the second Test of the series against Australia, he had been playing for India for more than four years. But in 20 Tests, he had never quite done justice to the talent that had laid waste domestic attacks. He averaged 27.06, and had made one century in 35 innings, a buccaneering 167 in a lost cause at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The bulk of those innings had come as an opener, and after failing in India’s next Test against South Africa, Laxman was dropped, having made clear his reluctance to bat out of position. “I was not very comfortable while opening the innings,” he said later. “I always had the feeling that I was trying to do something which I’m not really made for.”

The first Test against Steve Waugh’s Australians saw him bat at No.6, but his two innings there were a microcosm of his career till then – unhurried progress to 20 and 12, before loose strokes applied a full stop. In Kolkata, with Australia having posted 445, he came to the crease with India disintegrating at 88-4. Of the 83 further runs that they added before being bowled out, Laxman contributed 59, with 12 fours and plenty of swash and buckle.

The fluency with which he batted convinced the team management to send him in at No.3 when India followed on, with Rahul Dravid moving down to six. It was a decision that changed cricket history. The Laxman bat came down straight when needed – “When I play the straight drive well, I know I’m in good touch,” he was to tell me later – and described decisive arcs against pace and spin alike. The better Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie bowled, the better Laxman batted. But it was for Shane Warne that he reserved the most withering treatment.

Not content with clipping him through mid-wicket with deft twirls of the wrist and wondrous timing, he also drove him out of the leg-stump rough through the covers. Warne’s 34 overs went for 152, with Laxman manipulating the field and finding the gaps with real audacity. He may have taken Dravid’s slot, temporarily as it turned out, but there was no mistaking the bond between the two men, who had played so much cricket with and against each other at age-group levels.

As the fourth day wore on, with the duo first consolidating India’s position and then stamping their authority, Indian cricket’s most storied venue became an amphitheatre. The applause as Laxman went past Sunil Gavaskar’s 236, then the highest Test score by an Indian, was hair-raising, and the Australians looked beaten long before the last rites were administered the following evening.

It was also an innings that set the template for the rest of Laxman’s career. A soft-spoken, unassuming man off the field, he reserved his best performances for crisis situations, and the most formidable teams. Six of his 17 hundreds came against Australia, and there were other gems – 73 not out against Australia in Mohali and 96 in Durban, both in 2010 – that were worth far more than mundane hundreds.

“As far as cricket is concerned Laxman is a warrior by instinct and a man of peace by manner,” wrote the late Peter Roebuck. “The conflict has made his career fascinating and frustrating. His genius is peculiar and requires the most particular conditions. His greatness lies in the fact that those conditions are the toughest not the easiest. He is an artist whose strength lies not in his artistry but in his competitive spirit.”

Eden Gardens was the most beautiful illustration of that.

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