For, Sunday marked the completion of 15 years in international cricket of the Hyderabadi virtuoso.
Laxman arrived on the international stage as a promising 22-year-old, making a sparkling debut against South Africa in Ahmedabad on November 20, 1996. Fifteen years down the road, while the promise has translated itself into a most remarkable sequence of stirring performances, the sparkle still remains an integral part of the Laxman persona.
Cricket is essentially a numbers game, and invariably, cricketers will be remembered by the figures they stack up. Laxman is one of the exceptions. As impressive as his stats are, the Hyderabadi will always be synonymous with the joy he has provided, with the magic that has emanated from his lightweight willow, with the dignity and poise with which he has carried himself, with the dedication and purpose with which he has served the team.
Blinded by the incandescence of his peerless strokeplay and the consummate ease with which he directs the ball to unthinkable parts of the cricket ground, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that Laxman is where he is today because he has put in the hard yards. His talent is unquestioned, but while the runs he makes are public knowledge, not so public is the effort Laxman – like Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar -- puts in in the gym, on the training arena, in net sessions.
These are men who have been around for a long, long time. Five months back, Dravid too completed a decade and a half at the highest level; last week, Tendulkar quietly slipped into a 23rd year in international cricket. Stalwarts such as these don’t come every day, and in an era infested with limited-overs cricket, it’s doubtful if three of this kind will ever be a part of any international team at the same time in future.
For all his wowing of audiences across the world, Laxman is more deified and admired outside India than he is at home. It’s one of the great paradoxes that the country where cricket is supposed to be a religion has steadfastly chosen to overlook the many memorable deeds of a well-mannered, pleasant individual who doesn’t swear or cuss on the field of play, but whose aggression transmits itself into an in-the-trenches resolve that comes so easily to him.
Artiste. Stylist. Elegant. These are the words often used to describe Laxman, and rightly so. Steely, resolute and never-say-die sit equally well on his broad shoulders because over the years, Laxman has proved time and again that when the team is in a hole, there is no one better qualified to rise to the occasion than the man with the million-watt smile and the most outlandish strokes.
For all of 2010, Laxman was India’s hero. At the P Sara stadium in Colombo, he made light of a back injury with a fourth-innings hundred in a demanding run chase. A couple of months later, in October, he hobbled around, coaxing Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha into staying long enough with him to conjure the most incredible victory against Australia in Mohali.
In November, he was engaged in a crucial seventh-wicket association with Harbhajan Singh to spare India the blushes against New Zealand on the most placid Ahmedabad surface while the following month, his magnificent 96 set up a series-levelling victory in Durban.
It needed this tremendous run of second-innings scores for the self-styled experts to sit up and acknowledge the greatness of a batsman who hasn’t necessarily got his due outside the side. Within the team, though, he has been accorded the Very Very Special status for over a decade now, following his heroic 281 at the Eden against Australia in 2001 that turned a series on its head.
Laxman has had to endure the disappointment of never playing a World Cup, of seeing his limited-overs career never allowed to take shape, of never leading the country even as relative greenhorns like Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina have had that honour, of seldom being hailed as hero and saviour. Typically, he hasn’t allowed himself to be bothered by any of this, though not playing a World Cup will remain his eternal regret.
It is somewhat ironical that he must celebrate his 15th anniversary as an international cricketer at the same venue where, seven and a half months back, India lifted the World Cup. Then again, you suspect he will perhaps say, “I am happy!” Very, Very Special, indeed!