Wrist of fury
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. Pradeep Magazine takes you through his journey so far.india Updated: Nov 13, 2008 00:01 IST
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 would not be picked up in the team as the middle-order was packed with talented batsmen.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 batsman, I performed consistently. I think I'm averaging over 50 since 2000, but before that, as an opener, I was averaging around 26-27.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 better.
Q: 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.
Q: 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 all enjoyed playing alongside him and he was definitely a great team man.
Q: 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.
Q: You played a significant role in that series…
Kolkata, and also in Chennai. I was quite happy with both my knocks in Chennai. Especially in the second innings when we were under tremendous pressure and I got 66 and we won in a low-scoring fourth-innings.
So, those two series against Australia, in Australia and then India, gave us the confidence that we were capable of beating any side in the world, whether we were playing in India or playing abroad. Along with that, the hunger of doing something different, achieving something different spurred us on. And the results are there to see. We're very proud of what we've done abroad.
Q: Is there an Azharuddin influence on your wristy style of batting?
I met Azhar first when I was 16, but the way I was playing had started even before I met him.
Q: Well, maybe seeing him on TV…
Ummm, no, not much. On hindsight, I think that's the way we grew up. Not only me but there are a lot of Hyderabadis, or even players from Karnataka who are wristy. The reason for that is that we grew up playing on matting wickets. It's not that only I or Azhar are wristy, there are a lot of players who're probably as wristy – someone like Abdul Azim. I think Rahul is very wristy. It's because of the matting wickets you definitely have to use your wrists more than your elbows because off the odd bounce from the good-length spot. It's very different from playing on turf wickets.
The second thing is that I always enjoyed batting against fast bowling because I've batted a lot on cement wickets in the school. When you bat on a cement wicket, the ball generally comes on to the bat nicely and you like the pace of the wicket. I think it's because of these two reasons I turned out to be such a wristy batsman.
Q: Sometimes one feels that you play even the straight drive across the line. The way you pierce on-side fields to balls pitched outside the off stump must involve a lot of risk, especially when played against the spin?
Yes, against the spin there is. I used to get out a lot caught-and-bowled, especially in domestic cricket. But I worked a lot on it and that shot became now a sort of run-feeding shot for me.
Q: You worked to play against the spin?
Against the spin as well as with the spin. I can use both options. We had quality spinners when we were growing up – Kanwal and Venkatapathy Raju and Arshad Ayub – so practising against them in the nets helped me learn both the shots. Another thing is that with experience, I've learnt that it depends on what kind of wicket I'm playing on, what kind of bowlers I'm playing and what's happening with the ball – whether it's swinging much or not, and accordingly I play. And it's not that I'm playing cross-batted (laughs), because at the time of hitting the ball, the bat is straight and then it goes across.
It came naturally to me, and I'm quite confident with this.
Q: What are the changes you've seen in international cricket since you started playing?
I think the pace at which runs are scored has changed, and the field settings have changed. When I started playing in 1996, there would only be attacking fields. Now, depending on the wicket you're playing, on how the bowlers are bowling or the batsmen are batting, the field changes.
Q: Earlier if a fast bowler was on, slips were mandatory…
Three slips and a gully - which is orthodox. Now there are a lot of unorthodox settings. Also, the scoring rates. Nowadays if you score less than 300 in a day, it means you've had a bad day. Because of that you're getting more results too.
Q: We have seen a lot of unorthodox fields in this series too. The Australians have done it much more but even the Indians have done it. On the third day of the Test India resorted to run-restricting unorthodox field placements. Nowadays fields are set according to the strengths of the batsmen. Do you think it's changed for the better?
Yes, absolutely, because when you're restricting the runs or getting the batsmen out, you're making them think. You're making him change his plans, he's forced to change his plans.
Q: Let me ask this question this way… You play so much on the on-side, and if the opposition captain puts three, four men in the midwicket area, how does it change your game plan?
You have to think of what lines they're bowling to. You cannot play something out of the blue; you have to play something within your repertoire and you still adjust. You play with patience, you allow the bowler to err and if he doesn't err, you wait for the loose delivery. There will suddenly be a phase when you'd get loose deliveries, and that's the beauty of Test cricket. You have to counter each challenge that's thrown at you. If you allow yourself to get frustrated, you will throw away your wicket, which is what the opposition wants.
Q: John Wright had told me that after you were dropped for the 2003 World Cup, you did not speak to him for a long time?
Yes, it was one of my worst moments because I was preparing to represent the country, and it's a huge honour for someone to represent his country in the World Cup. As someone who'd missed the 1999 World Cup, I was looking forward to playing. And I was performing consistently for the One-day team at that moment and I thought I'd definitely go to South Africa. It came as a shock to me and I was not ready to take it. .
Q: So you stopped talking with Wright?
I didn't stop talking, but definitely, you get disappointed. When you're performing and don't get selected, you do get disappointed with the people who are in charge, especially the team think-tank, the captain and the coach.
Q: So you were upset with both?
Yeah, I was upset, upset with me not getting selected. But again on hindsight, it was just a passing phase and after the World Cup, I performed really well in both one-dayers and Test matches.
Q: How do you look at the Greg Chappell era? There've been so many stories, so many controversies about him?
See, every coach has his own way of operating, and everyone has got various experiences with various coaches. Greg had his way to run and everyone has various experiences (laughs)…
Q: Was his way something you agree with or…
I would not comment on that. I would just say that everyone has his own way of coaching a team and every individual is different. So was John, so was Greg…
Q: Did he create a lot of insecurity in the team?
As I have said before, I don't think about the insecurity factor because of my past experiences at the start of my career.
Q: So, you were well-prepared…
Absolutely, I was always… I had those experiences and I was prepared. The ultimate thing for any cricketer is to go out and perform consistently.
Q: Now that some of your colleagues have retired have you given a thought to how long you intend to play?
No, because when you're thinking like that, it means that you're not enjoying playing the game. I'm thoroughly enjoying my cricket and I want to perform more and more consistently for the country. I think it's an inner feeling, when you get to know that you're not contributing or are not working hard and becoming better… then that will tell you… Right now, I'm enjoying myself and I think our team has a chance to be No. 1 in world cricket, in Test match cricket. I want to be part of that process, I want to achieve that. And I just want to pick up a bat. (laughs)
Q: Do you regret that you never got an opportunity to lead?
I never got an opportunity to lead, and that's something that's not in your control, and I don't think of things that are beyond my control.
Q: Would you like to lead?
Anyone would love to lead the country but that's beyond your control and I never think about that.
Q: You have mostly batted at No. 6 or No. 5, positions where when at times you run out of partners and don't get the opportunity to score really big runs. Would you say that you'd prefer to be a No. 3?
I'll put it this way – right from my childhood, I've always batted at No. 3. For the Indian team, I batted at No. 6 most of the times and I adjusted myself well. .
Q: Not batting at No. 3 could also mean that you possibly may have missed out on scoring, say, 10,000 runs in Test cricket.
(Laughs) That's very difficult to think. But ifs and buts are not in cricket and should not be there. I'm quite happy with whatever I've contributed.
Q: How difficult are attention and fame to deal with?
Yes, it is tough. That's the biggest challenge of being a cricketer in our country. It's also a part of learning. As you improve you cricketing skills, learning to handle your success – or failures – will also help you. At the start of this conversation, I said that cricket has helped me to become a better person. I'm confident I can handle any situation in life.