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VVS Laxman: I played each ball as if it was the last ball I was going to face

Laxman speaks to Lounge about his 281 runs at the Eden Gardens and missing out on a triple ton

Laxman celebrates his 200 in the second Test against Australia at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata, on 14 March 2001. Photo: Getty Images
Laxman celebrates his 200 in the second Test against Australia at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata, on 14 March 2001. Photo: Getty Images

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When V.V.S. Laxman walked on to the pitch on the morning of 13 March 2001, with India at 52 for 1, the atmosphere at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens was tense and nerve-racking. India were still 222 runs behind Australia’s first innings’ score of 445 in their second innings after being asked to follow-on and staring at another humiliating defeat.

After a thumping 10-wicket victory inside three days of the first Test match of the tour at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, Steve Waugh’s all-conquering Australian team looked set for an unprecedented 17th consecutive Test win at the Eden.

But the man from Hyderabad had other plans. Along with Rahul Dravid, Laxman forged an epic partnership of 376 runs and, in turn, scripted one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of Test cricket. They batted together for 105 overs, and all of Day 4 of the Test, without losing a wicket and snatched the match back from Australia’s grip. Laxman scored 281 runs, then the highest ever individual score by an Indian in a Test match innings. India won the game—it was only the third time that a side had won a match after being asked to follow-on—and then the series.

Seventeen years later, Laxman recounts the emotional roller-coaster of that innings—as well as the many highs and lows of his cricketing career—in his autobiography 281 And Beyond (Westland Sport, 318 pages, 699). Co-written with sports journalist R. Kaushik, the book was launched in Mumbai on 22 November. Laxman spoke to Lounge about his career as a batsman, the future of Test cricket, and “the knock that changed (his) life”. Edited excerpts:

The 281 at the Eden Gardens is probably your most famous innings. What do you have to say about the knock?

The situation we were in, to go out and play in the manner that I did, and the way the team won the match, I think that was a very important and memorable Test match for all of us. I stuck to the basics and played my natural game, played with a lot of freedom. I was not thinking about the past or the future, all I was trying to do was be in the moment and play to the merit of the ball. I capitalized on the loose deliveries, respected the good deliveries, but played each and every ball as if it was the last ball I was going to face. When you think about the process rather than focusing on the outcome, the outcome will take care of itself.

What I and the team learnt from that match was to never give up. In cricket, as in life, you face a lot of adversity and challenging situations, but all you have to do is to trust yourself, believe in your abilities and keep fighting. Because you don’t know when the tide will turn. From that time onwards, we as a team felt that irrespective of whether the opposition has a strong hold on the match, till the last run is scored or the last wicket is taken, never ever give up. And that is something that I will very fondly remember.

Do you have any regrets about missing out on a triple century? 

Would I have been happy to get a 300? Of course. But the way I approached that innings—and a lot of other innings in my career—was that the team came ahead of my personal aspiration. It was very clear that on the fifth day we would only play for 1 hour and then declare so the bowlers have enough time to pick up Australian wickets. As you’d expect, the Australian bowlers were bowling wide outside the off stump with a defensive field, because they wanted to delay my 300 and with that the declaration. In trying to force the pace and get runs, I got out. But I don’t at all regret the way I got out because I was trying to play to the situation and fulfil the expectations from the team. I’m very happy that the 281 enabled the team to win the game, and that is very satisfying for me.

You have an outstanding record hanging in with the tail. How did you manage to do that?

I’m very proud of my performance as a number 6 batsman batting with the tail. In that situation, invariably the opposition captain would spread the field and try to give me a single so his bowlers could bowl to the tail-enders and get their wickets. So I had to develop a strategy to maximize my performances with the tail. I was lucky that we had bowlers who took a lot of pride in their batting, were always keen on working on their batting and there was a rapid improvement in their performance. I gave them a lot of confidence, not just in words but also in action. So I gave them the strike whenever a run was available, that’s how I showed trust in their ability to bat. Communication is also very important. I’d ask them to tell me which bowlers they weren’t comfortable with and I’d try to face that bowler as much as possible.

In hindsight, do you think you should have gotten more opportunities in the shorter format of the game? 

Yes, I think so. Especially since 2001, the way I was performing, I thought I deserved a longer run. There was no consistency in the thought process behind my selection. But having said that, it’s a team game. My style of batting in the shorter version of the game was more suited to the top 4, not as a finisher. And there was so much class and talent in the top 4—you had Sourav (Ganguly), Sachin (Tendulkar), (Virender) Sehwag, (Rahul) Dravid—so sometimes it became difficult to accommodate me.

What is the future of Test cricket, with T20 now becoming so popular? 

T20 will stay, and the shortest version of the game will be very popular. Because what T20 and IPL have done is brought in a lot of new fans to the game. People who may not be purists, but treat cricket as entertainment. But the longer version of the game still has its fans, and more importantly, the players give a lot of value to Test cricket. Because I think the players and fans know that Test cricket is real cricket, where you’re tested in every aspect—your mind, your skill, your endurance. And as long as that’s true, I think Test cricket won’t be threatened.

What do you make of India’s chances at the 2019 World Cup?

Along with England, they start as the favourites to win the tournament. They’ve got the balance, they’ve got the experience and they’ve got the class to go on and win. There are one or two issues that still need to be addressed, especially the role of an all-rounder and the bench strength in the pace bowling department, but I’m sure the selectors and the team management are working on that.

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