Overs 2.2 - When Laxman painted a masterpiece with his bat
The canvas was ready. Eden Gardens has hosted over 90 international matches since being established in 1864. But none were as enthralling as the one in 2001 between the all-conquering, supremely successful and invincible Australia outfit (so we thought) and an Indian cricket team that has never lost to Australia in their own backyard previously. The series was the making of a great cricketing rivalry and what transpired in those five days kindled the renaissance of Indian cricket since their famous World Cup glory in 1983.
The Australian team was on the cusp of creating history after winning the first test very comprehensively at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. They had compiled a world-record of 16 successive wins stretching back to 1999. Steve Waugh, the Australian captain labelled this series as the "final frontier" before leaving the shores of Australia. With names such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and the Waugh twins, it was probably the greatest team assembled on a cricket pitch. Enter Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman (VVS). The Hyderabadi stylist and the defiant Rahul Dravid put on a partnership that will never ever be forgotten in the annals of cricketing history. No painter could have painted a perfect picture.
I did not have commercial television at that time. I remember coming home from school and switching on the ABC Grandstand radio. It was perfect timing. We clocked off at 3 p.m. AEST from school just in time for the first ball of every day in India. I can safely say that this was the first test match that I listened to the dissection of every single delivery. Such was the tension and importance of what was being played out at the Eden Gardens that people tend to forget that Hayden made an important 97 and that Australia was in a deep state of bother when S. Waugh compiled one of his trademark centuries batting with the tail. People also overlook Harbhajan Singh's hat-trick or Gilchrist becoming the first Australian cricketer to register a king pair.
The Australians knew the ability of Laxman before this Test match. Even though Laxman averaged just over 20 in his ten test matches, he did play a sublime innings of 167 against the Aussies in Sydney in 2000. Dravid had struggled against the opposition for some time now and was grappling on to keep his place at the top of the order. After his first innings struggles and the form of Laxman, Dravid was pushed down the order to accommodate Laxman, who came at first drop. Whether it was destiny or luck, Indian captain Sourav Ganguly conjured up a masterstroke.
After Australia amassed 440 odd runs and bowled India out for 171, Waugh decided to enforce the follow-on with India already 275 runs behind. It was a moment where the ruthlessness to dominate became a chink in the nearly impenetrable armour of Australia. And that is all that Laxman and Dravid needed. Warne had mentioned numerous times after that the decision to make India bat again was one of arrogance as the bowlers were tired, the heat was sweltering and here presented an opportunity to make it impossible for the Indians to get the result.
John Buchanan, who was the Australian coach at that time felt that Australia could take advantage of the switch between Dravid and Laxman and try and expose Laxman with the new ball. But Laxman's innings was one of godlike patience, outstanding endurance, incredible skill and artistic batsman-ship. It did not matter where the Australians bowled, Laxman used his flexible wrists to churn run after run after run.
There was a massive amount of rough outside the leg-stump. But whatever Warne and co. bowled on it, Laxman stroked his way into history. As a painting rises from the brushstrokes, so did Laxman's innings from his elegant batsman-ship that day. Neville Cardus once said that "a true batsman should in most of his strokes tell the truth about himself". This given day, the Australians found a lot about Laxman. Whether it was Gillespie with those vicious off cutters or Warne with those ripping leg-spinners, Laxman effortlessly toyed with Australia for two days in the scorching Kolkata-weather. I still remember seeing the highlights of those delightful on-drives against the spin and the lazy elegance of the flicks off his legs. This was as true as batting can get.
To also put the enormity of Laxman's brilliance into perspective, he was nearly ruled out before a ball was even bowled. Andrew Leipus, the Indian team physiotherapist told Cricinfo that Laxman had a condition called antalgic posture where the body shifts away from the pain. Laxman was suffering from a stiff back and to compensate for the problem, his shoulders were not in line with his pelvis. As Leipus said, Laxman endured " pain, the heat, the exhaustion, the dehydration, the cramping, the opposition, the pressure". Let us also not undermine the resilience, the importance and fortitude of Dravid, who for most of his career has been in somewhat of a similar position - shadowed from the limelight.
India went on to script the greatest comeback in cricketing history and win the test match by 171 runs. That test will be remembered as the moment Laxman painted a masterpiece with his bat.