For years now players in the Indian team have rated him a class act who got the team out of trouble when they most needed it. He will go down in history as one of the finest batsmen India ever produced, but even now, having just completed 100 Tests, VVS Laxman has travelled a long road. He takes HT through the journey so far.
How do you look back at your career after having played 100 Test matches?
It's a very proud moment to have reached so far, especially in a country like India where cricket is more of a religion than a sport. It's quite difficult to get an opportunity, to get into the Indian team. I am a better human being now. It has made me understand myself much better and given me the confidence that irrespective of the kind of challenges I face, I can overcome them.
What are the kind of challenges you faced?
The first and foremost challenge was to take cricket as a profession as I wanted to be a doctor. Then the challenge was to get runs consistently and get a call to the Indian team — that's not easy at all.
Then when I started playing for India, the challenge was to open the batting for the country; which never came naturally to me. Still I've done my bit as an opener for the team. The period from 1996 to 2000 was very difficult, because I was in and out of the team. I was trying my best to do well as an opener, but the moment I failed in a couple of innings, people used to brand me an ordinary opener and drop me. That was quite frustrating for me but it also helped me to gain a lot of experience in how to deal with various situations. Since 2000, I'm quite happy with the way my career has gone. There will be ups and downs because of the nature of the sport, but I'm happy that I've overcome those challenges.
Don't you think you took a risk in deciding not to open when you told the selectors that you want to play for India only as a middle-order batsman, especially in a country like ours, where you are not supposed to challenge authority?
It was a very strong decision and I think I should thank my uncle and coaches in Hyderabad because they helped me to take this decision. It was frustrating to get dropped again and again, despite trying my best. I didn't like the tag of non-regular opener. I remember I got 167 against Australia in Australia, and two Test matches after that, I was dropped. After that 167 in Sydney, I played the next Test against South Africa in Mumbai and then I was dropped. That was the turning point as I sat back and thought that I was contributing consistently for South Zone and Hyderabad yet I did not have a permanent place in the Indian team. This decision was tough, because there was every chance that I’d not be picked up in the team as the middle-order was packed with talented batsmen.
Yet you took the risk?
Yes, because four years is a long time and I was not enjoying myself. You want to enjoy playing for the country. It's only when you perform consistently that you enjoy playing. I was not able to perform consistently because I was not getting a long run. That's when I took this decision. It was during that period I scored, I think nine or 10 consecutive centuries in Ranji Trophy and for South Zone.
So you forced your way back into the team.
Exactly! I was very happy that everything fell into place Luckily for me then, the selectors picked me up, Sourav became the captain and John Wright came as coach and everything fell into place. I'm quite pleased that since the time I came into the team as a middle-order, I performed consistently. I think I'm averaging over 50 since 2000, but before that, as an opener, I was averaging around 26-27.
Even now, whenever there's a talk that someone needs to be dropped, the talk would lead to you… Has this upset you, hurt you?
See, that's what I meant… the experience of the first four years taught me that I should not be thinking about things that I cannot control, and that's why I decided that I would not open. After that I decided I would not think at all about this talk of getting dropped from the team because it was hurting me, it was not allowing me to play my natural game, it was not allowing me to enjoy cricket. That experience helped me to deal with whatever talk which has been there.
You mean you have handled enough pressure to be now immune to pressure?
Absolutely. That is why I think what happened in the first four years of my career is very important to me. And sometimes it also happens that a lot of things that come in the media are not true. The selectors and the think-tank give me the confidence so I don't really get affected by what is being said. As I said, the moment I stopped thinking about things beyond my control, I started enjoying myself and performing.
Looking back, the 281 in Kolkata is no doubt the high point, but apart from that what are the other highlights of your career?
Kolkata was definitely a high point for Indian cricket and me personally. That was the best phase of my career. But apart from that, Kolkata gave me the confidence that I can bail out the team from any tough situation. Yes, 281 was a big score but even though I may not have got such a big score again, there have been more than 10 occasions — more than that, I'm sure, because I don't remember — when I bailed out the team from tough situations. Apart from that, I think Test matches abroad and performing in those wins are definite high points.
A lot of people say that Sourav as captain was responsible in the transformation in the attitude of the Indian team. What's your thought on this?
Yes, definitely, because the way the captain leads is very, very important and Sourav was the captain during that phase, when we actually changed the trend or the way we approached an overseas tour. Along with that, I give a lot of credit to John Wright because he instilled in us the hunger to do well abroad. So it's a combination of Sourav and John, and the hunger in each one of us that we have to do something we've never done before.
Also I think when Sourav was the captain, he gave each and every player confidence. Once he believed that a player was a match-winner, he backed him. For me, that has been his strongest point. Because of him, a lot of match-winners emerged during his tenure. Then, he's been of an aggressive nature as a captain. I especially remember the 2001 series, when Steve Waugh started talking and giving his statements from Australia (laughs), Sourav started to retaliate and give it back to Steve Waugh, which spurred us on. That's why the contest in an Australia-India series is so intense, and I think Sourav is the man who started it all. There've been a lot of attributes to his captaincy, and his batting. We enjoyed playing alongside him and he was definitely a great team man.
What did the team do differently, then say in 1999-2000 when we toured Australia, we were thrashed?
I think that thrashing helped us later because all of us were on our first tour to Australia, except Sachin, and that tour helped us to tour better. We didn't like the thrashing, we'd never been thrashed like that before... yes, in the 1996 tour of South Africa, we didn't do well, but after that 2000 was very humiliating for us. Secondly, that gave us the mental strength, the resolve that we don't want to be thrashed like that again.
Also, the 2001 series win against Australia helped, even though it was played in India. It was against a very formidable side but we did well.
(For VVS Laxman on how he developed his unique style of batting, on Greg Chappell era and on how the game has developed read Thursday's pages)