With V V S Laxman unpadding, looks like cricket has seen the last of the touch artistes, says M P Anil Kumar.
That I could never watch Gundappa Viswanath bat live would remain a regret for life. One of my all-time great cricketers, I had to be content with hearing or reading about his exploits, and visualising it in my mind's eye, not see it unfold. If only I had a time machine to turn the clock back to savour every moment of his glorious knocks.
G R Viswanath's batsmanship was supramundane and therefore it was often likened to artistry than batting. The precision with which he pierced the field, ah, one could be excused for thinking that this Little Master knew more about angles than the master geometrician Euclid. The strong, elastic wrists enabled him to play the ball late, very late. Which was perhaps what prompted Sunil Gavaskar to gush: 'To one delivery, I had one but Vishy had four strokes'.
My first impression of V V S Laxman at the wicket was: 'Hey, this fellow has graduated from the Viswanath School of batsmanship'. Laxman's arrival partly suppressed my yearning for a time machine!
Like Viswanath, the stadium was no concrete monstrosity but an easel for Laxman, the arena a canvas, the pitch a palette, the bat a paintbrush and the delivery a mere muse to inspire fresh brushwork! Debonairly elegance marked every stroke, no stroke appeared to be played in anger in spite of the provocation by bowlers done up in warpaint.
It could not be a mere coincidence that both Viswanath and Laxman retrieved an innings in extremis more often than not. In fact, the doldrums, not featherbeds, seemed to be their preferred choice of setting to craft their opuses!
For the Indian team, the runs they scored have been worth its weight in gold (or coal-block allotment, if you may). Yet, metrics are inadequate to evaluate the real weight of their contribution to the team's cause.
Although both Viswanath and Laxman were proven crisis men and match-winners, and could have been the most toasted cricketer of their time, they had to live in the shadows of their contemporary run machines -- the prolific Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.
Once relegated to the shadows, given its obsession with 'glitzkrieg', the media limelight would only be episodic and not incandescent enough to outshine the chosen torchbearer of the time.
Two gentlemen to the core. Two touch artists. Two men of few words. Two of a kind. No, they were not clones. Far from it. Two geniuses can never be alike; so were Viswanath and Laxman.
Though conjoined by a common thread, they were disjoined by an integer -- two-eighty-one.
Unlike Viswanath, Laxman raised a monument for himself with his thumping 281. Besides, the television footage will propagate his legend. Viswanath, alas, will need a pleader to make a case to the posterity for his rightful place in India's cricketing pantheon.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Well, gigabytes have been written on Laxman's magnum opus, so reconstructing and eulogising that masterpiece would be somewhat like preaching to the choir! Yet, the context and impact of those 281 runs bear revisiting for this stupendous knock was truly epoch-making.
Spurred by the surprise 1987 World Cup conquest, skipper Allan Border and coach Bob Simpson strode into the smithy to forge the Australian team into a dominant, world-beating machine (but lacked the flair of the invincible West Indies sides of the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s).
In the first Test of the 2001 tour at Mumbai, Australia crushed India into pulp by the third day, extended their Test winning streak to 16. And when skipper Steve Waugh enforced the follow-on, an Australian victory in a canter, to notch their seventeenth on the trot, looked like a formality. Even a dyed-in-the-wool fan would not have given India a cat's chance in hell, let alone Kolkata, to turn the tables on Australia.
The beauty of sport is that unlike a movie, it is unscripted, leaving leeway for a contestant to emerge a hero and script a blockbuster of his liking. Laxman seized the moment, collared Glen McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne, and halted the Australian juggernaut in its tracks.
Laxman's earthshaking epic culminated on March 15, the Ides of March. In retrospect, for the Australian team, the Ides of March proved seismic. Epicentred at Eden Gardens, the 281-on-the-Crichter-scale temblor was the first to quake the Australian reign as the undisputed champions.
The aftershocks kept cracking and crumbling their throne. And in December 2009, we witnessed the coronation of the new kings of Test cricket -- India.
In a class of his own
One cannot define Laxman only on the high-wire act Eden Gardens and as Australia's bogeyman.
Besides the grace and polish, Laxman also forced the fan to take notice of his grit on his debut Test itself by grafting decisive 51 runs in the second innings against South Africa at Ahmedabad.
He not only contributed copiously to the ascent of Team India, he also led the rearguard to regularly pull off some magnificent victories to prolong our reign at the top to 20 months. Nothing can erase our memories of the 103* at Colombo, 96 at Durban and 73* on one leg at Mohali against the Aussies. Hmm... he had saved some of his best for the last.
His supple wrists and deft footwork helped him to toy with two all-time great spinners: Warne and Muralitharan.
How he repeatedly leapt out wide outside the leg stump to intercept Warne's leg breaks, played inside-out off drives swivelling on the front foot, to despatch the ball to the boundary, took our breath away and left us gasping for more!
To an old-fashioned cricket nut like me, the musculature of T20 batting has befouled the very aesthetics of batsmanship. The sledgehammer mode of batting has all but destroyed the feather in the willow. With Laxman unpadding, looks like cricket has seen the last of the touch artistes.
And with 'onfield aggression' bordering on vulgar, the gentleman's game has lost a true gentleman in Laxman's retirement.
VVS, your batting gave us much, indescribable pleasure. We will miss you.
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