VVS Laxman celebrates his 150

One ball, two shots: the way Laxman had options for most Warne deliveries was a standout of his innings

© Getty Images

Feature

281-degree panorama

Seven views of Mt VVS from Pts Warne, Ponting, Zaheer, Gillespie, Raju, Leipus and Buchanan

The spinmeister
Shane Warne
"He was hitting the same ball through cover or whipping it through midwicket"

What I remember about that Test match is that Steve Waugh and a few others got a bit carried away with the most-consecutive-wins thing. Steve Waugh pulled us bowlers aside and said, "How are you all feeling?" I'd bowled a lot of overs and it was steaming hot that week - and some of the younger bowlers, I think Kasper [Michael Kasprowicz] played that game, he's like, "I'm right, I'm right, I'm right, I can bowl!" (pumping fists). So finally he [Waugh] comes up to me and says, "What'd you think?" I said, "Mate, I think we just bat again. Let the bowlers freshen up, make so much runs they can't score, so much time left in the game that they can't win." He says, "Umm, maybe, maybe, no, no, I think we should just bowl again." And I said, "Mate, you want to bowl? It's hot out there." So anyway we decide to enforce the follow-on and we actually got a few top-order wickets. Three down or something. I always felt confident against [VVS] Laxman and [Rahul] Dravid. Rahul, I'd actually got Rahul out a few times during my career, and even though he's such a wonderful player - and smacked us - I still felt I could get him out. Same with Laxman. I had got him out in the first innings. And I think the next time I bowled against Laxman [in the first Test of the 2004-05 series] I got him out both innings. I didn't feel like, "Jeez, I can't bowl to these guys."

But the way they played - their concentration in that innings was superb. We gave them everything. I was bowling in the footmarks and Laxman was hitting the same ball through cover or whipping it through midwicket. It was so hard to bowl then. I think every player has a day out when no matter what they do - play and miss, 50-50 lb decision, dropped catch, every time you hit one in the gap it goes all the way - I think every player has one day like that. They were unbelievable - that partnership was as good a partnership as there has ever been in the game.

"There are a few players who tried to play shots like that, but if they tried it twice or thrice I generally got them out. The key was how consistently well he did it - inside-out or through midwicket against the spin on a track that was turning big"

A lot of players came down the track and hit me inside-out once or twice, but not as consistently as VVS did for two days - or however many days, three days, I can't remember! There are a few players who tried to play shots like that, but if they tried it twice or thrice I generally got them out. The key was how consistently well he did it - inside-out or through midwicket against the spin on a track that was turning big. And I was actually bowling well. Sure, I bowled a few bad balls, and if you look at the highlights package there will be some shockers in there. But I bowled 50 overs or something in the match, so you put those other 280 balls in there and they were good ones.

As far as I'm concerned it was a special innings. Where we went wrong was enforcing the follow-on, and also we should have been able to bat out the last 70 overs or so to save the Test. But India went and bowled us out. So it really was a tremendous performance - in the end they wore us down. Looking back, Laxman's 281 was one of the great innings I experienced as a player. We had two or three like it - Brian Lara, a couple of Sachin's - but that match in Kolkata, it was definitely one of the great partnerships, and a great innings from VVS.

Shane Warne was speaking to Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Leipus:

Leipus: "Through it all his smile never disappeared" © Getty Images

The physio
Andrew Leipus
"If VVS was a fast bowler he would have never played that match"

VVS wasn't really supposed to play this match. On the eve of the Test, while I was treating some player, he came into my room smiling and bouncing: "Hi Andrew. I have got a bit of a stiff back." My jaw just dropped because my first thoughts were that he cannot play the next day. I told him, "Have a look in the mirror and tell me what you see." He turned around and said, "Oh, my shoulders are off to one side."

He was "listed over". Listing is a physio term where your shoulders are not above your pelvis, they are off to one side. It is what we call antalgic posture. Your body moves away from a position of pain. It's like a limp: you limp because you don't want to feel the pain.

The first thing that came to my mind was the disc in the back was the problem. And if that is the case you really should not be loading that with pain by playing for five days. But he wasn't in pain, it was more a case of stiffness. It is a nightmare scenario for a physio, because you don't have the opportunity to treat, reassess or do a fitness test. You just go by the knowledge of the player, how he responds to injury, his mental toughness and his pain tolerance levels. You have to weigh all that up before allowing the player to play. Ultimately I always go with what the player feels unless there is a medical reason not to. If VVS was a fast bowler he would have never played that match.

Keeping VVS straight, keeping him hydrated, keeping the cramps at bay, making sure his overnight recovery was good, those were the main things. Before play, at lunch, tea and in the evenings we would do manual therapy. Over the course of the day, with the heat fatigue and so forth, the body would start to spasm up and bend over, so it would be a struggle to keep his back straight.

"It was a surreal experience to watch him just go, go, go to overcome the pain, the heat, the exhaustion, the dehydration, the cramping, the pressure"

The biggest challenge was not just keeping VVS on his legs but also Rahul. Both players were exhausted and cramping severely. I remember we actually had both of them on a drip at the end of the fourth day to fight the dehydration. They were losing fluid faster than they could absorb it. One was on the physio table and one was on the lunch table. It really was the Wild West back then. It is illegal now from the anti-doping perspective: you are not allowed to infuse any glucose saline solution unless it is an emergency situation and you are in hospital. It's also dangerous, but we had good doctors around supervising their blood pressure and so on.

There were no ice vests back then so I cut towels, dipped them in ice-cold water and wrapped them around the batsmen's necks. We needed to change those over regularly to get the body temperature down. I lost count of how many times I ran onto the ground to attend to Lax and Rahul.

It was not just handling the players, but also absorbing John Wright's constant taunts. He was like a hairdryer in my ear: "F******g hell, do something about this! Stop his cramping," he would say as soon as Rahul started cramping up. Rahul cramps even in cooler climates and you can't do much more than regularly monitor his intake of fluids. We couldn't afford to lose either one of them.

I had no instructions for Lax, except general ones. "Just try and stay loose, don't let the tightness and cramps creep up on you. You just have to keep moving, but nothing too sudden as the muscles won't respond well." The cramping and the dehydration exacerbated the situation with his back. Even as I was trying to mobilise him into a neutral position, the cramping would prevent it and work against what I was trying to do. We managed to straighten him - manual therapy, soft-tissue work, mobilisation of the joints to relax them. Mobility work around the hips seems to get him moving.

Through it all his smile never disappeared. In contemporary medicine we believe that if you have a positive attitude then your pain, which is an output of your brain, is not going to bother you as much. If he had got out early his pain might have been worse. But I have seen it with players, including Lax, that if you have a physical problem you have to overcome, the focus seems to improve. If everything is happy up there, the pain is just pushed aside - not gone, just redirected.

Lax was no greyhound. He was more of a plodder - he could just go and go and go, which is probably what allowed him to get that sort of a score in those sorts of conditions. It was just a surreal experience to be there and watch him first hand, just go, go, go to overcome the pain, the heat, the exhaustion, the dehydration, the cramping, the opposition, the pressure.

Andrew Leipus was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi

"Bring yourself on, skipper?" "Naw mate, I'll sit this one out" © Getty Images

The pace ace
Jason Gillespie
"If I am honest, I was pretty sick of the sight of Mr Laxman"

We had come to India with a game plan: the fast bowlers would bowl the Australian line, a fourth- and fifth-stump line. We won the first Test in Mumbai inside three days with that plan. At Eden Gardens the pitch did not have the same bounce and carry and the Indians played us better. They let a lot more deliveries go through to the wicketkeeper. They waited for a bit of extra width so they could cut. They waited for us to miss our lengths and capitalised on anything overpitched by driving through the off side on the front foot.

And to Laxman, if we got impatient and bowled even on the off stump, he was such a wristy player he could work you through the leg. We tried to take the leg side out of the game by stacking the off side and bowling the wide line. But he managed to find a way through that field. And when we did bowl too straight he whipped us through the leg side and got his runs that way.

When Shane Warne was bowling - I still remember, he went round the wicket and pitched in the rough - VVS came down the wicket and hit Shane through midwicket. Couple of balls later Shane's bowled almost exactly the same delivery, VVS has got to the leg side of the ball and hit it past wide mid-off. When the ball is turning big out of the rough, the skill needed to hit the delivery to two different sides of the ground was pretty special. I remember Shane standing there with his hands on his hips thinking, "There is not a lot I could do here. I have bowled the best ball I could bowl but he is hitting it where he wants to." We had no answer to him.

There wasn't a lot happening on the wicket. I was trying different lengths, the odd bouncer, bowling that outside-off-stump line, slower balls, cross-seams, wide of the crease. We changed our field setting to force an error. We went to Plan B and Plan C but nothing seemed to work. We just couldn't get the breakthrough.

"I remember my first trip to India with the Australian Under-19 side and VVS was hitting hundred after hundred back then too"

Steve Waugh threw the ball to every possible player except himself and Gilly [Adam Gilchrist]. Michael Slater bowled. I remember Matty Hayden bowling a spell. I hadn't seen Matty Hayden bowl in the nets for years and all of a sudden he is bowling in a Test match. I suppose that gives you an indication of how much we were struggling: Matty Hayden and Justin Langer had to come up and bowl.

And if I am honest, I was pretty sick of the sight of Mr Laxman. I remember my first trip to India with the Australian Under-19 side and VVS was hitting hundred after hundred back then too. I remember reflecting out in the middle of Eden Gardens as he blazed to his double-century: I've been in this situation before. Laxman was someone who Australians of my era have always held in incredibly high regard for the wonderful player he was, but also because he was a fantastic guy.

We were really disappointed how the game panned out, but Steve Waugh said to us in the dressing room that he couldn't fault our effort. We gave it everything. VVS, especially, and Rahul were too good for us. So you just have to stick your hand up and applaud. We bowled well but he just batted better than we bowled - as simple as that. We were at the receiving end of one of the special innings in Test cricket.

Jason Gillespie was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi

Zaheer:

Zaheer: "He was very prim and proper, whereas I would come back and throw my things about without a care" © AFP

The room-mate
Zaheer Khan
"Throughout the Test he slept on the floor"

As I checked into the team hotel in Kolkata I was told I was sharing a room with Laxman. I was surprised to learn that he was my room-mate. And we were both hesitant about it to begin with. We were very different personalities. Laxman was an early riser and liked to do things in a certain way. I was very relaxed in many ways.

In a sense, when you are sharing a room it works better when you have different kinds of personalities. It means you are not fighting for stuff, especially when getting ready before a game. He would be ready well before I even started. He was very prim and proper, whereas I would come back from a session and throw my things about without a care.

On one occasion after nets I went back to the room and I saw he was hassled with the way my things were scattered around the room. He told me, this thing is supposed to be here and that thing is supposed to be there, and so on. I was very tired after training and shot back: "If you have a problem with my things then you sort them. Not my problem." We just had a good laugh then. And with that our initial hesitancy disappeared.

"In tough situations he would find an extra focus. We believed that he can somehow save us. That was Laxman throughout his career"

We built a good friendship. Laxman was a guy very fixed on routines and he never skipped them, regardless of the situation on or off the field. In the dressing room too he had a set routine before he entered the field, and he maintained those through the two days he batted in Kolkata.

He played that match with back spasms. Throughout the Test he slept on the floor because of his back. His disc was tilted to one side. Everyone could see that he could not stand straight.

It was really tough for him but Laxman had great mental strength and a will to succeed. In tough situations he would somehow find an extra focus, a determination to do well. We believed that he can somehow save us. That was Laxman throughout his career.

Zaheer Khan was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi

For an entire day, Warne and Co went wicketless

For an entire day, Warne and Co went wicketless © Getty Images

The rival coach
John Buchanan
"The scorecard became irrelevant"

So here we were at Eden Gardens. We had won the first Test in Mumbai convincingly. We had won 16 Test matches in a row. We then made 440-odd in the first innings in Kolkata. Then we bowled out India for 170-odd. When the players came back, what I should have done is to remain as objective as possible and not get caught up with the "Last Frontier" tour motto set by Stephen Waugh. The only way India could actually have got back into the game was if we enforced the follow-on. But we had just five or six minutes to make the decision.

So India batted a second time and quickly they were 115 for 3 with Tendulkar gone. What India did was reverse Dravid's position with Laxman's. It did surprise me at the time, but when you look at it Dravid had been scratchy in the first two Tests and Laxman had batted really well in the first innings. We actually thought that the switch would probably work in our favour because we could now expose Laxman to a newer ball earlier in the innings. And with Dravid palpably lost no matter where he batted, the further down he came in, the more advantageous it would be for us.

Of course it did not play out that way. Laxman and Dravid put together an incredible partnership. The standout thing for me about Laxman's innings was his footwork. And his ability against Warne, to hit him anywhere around the ground, to be able to go back and play on both sides of the wicket, and to be able to run down the wicket. And not just run down the wicket - he would give himself room and get to the leg side of the ball and hit Warne through the off. His footwork was amazing. His timing was amazing. His placement was amazing. His ability to just deal with every ball was amazing. And Dravid became just an incredible ally for him.

"In the end he broke the back of that Australian attack, and in a sense he broke the will of the team not only to forge a win but also to secure a draw"

Our previous recollections of Laxman were all in Australia, including his incredible innings in Sydney [on the 1999-2000 tour]. There he had demonstrated his ability to play quick and short bowling. Here, we were in a place where there was no short bowling available to us. We relied heavily on Warne. At the time Warne was coming back from [shoulder] injury. So both physically and mentally he wasn't as strong as he had been in the past. There were some pretty interesting conversations out in the middle between Warne and Steve Waugh about what sort of field placings, what type of bowling he should try and employ to somehow dislodge Laxman. A few of the guys said Warney was delirious at some of the suggestions.

All we kept trying to do was work out how we could slow down Laxman's boundary rate. If we could do that, maybe it would lead to frustration, which might lead to his wicket. We discussed various field placements and bowling combinations. Not a thing seemed to work. No matter who the bowler was, what the combination of bowlers was, what the field placings were, his footwork, timing, placement were exquisite.

A great Test batting performance involves firstly determining the context: India were 1-0 down in the series, 270-odd runs behind. Everything pointed to an Australian victory, making it 17 Test wins in a row. And Laxman turned that on its head. He was not concerned about the scoreboard. He was just concerned about playing every ball as it came along. One of the hallmarks of a great innings is, the scoreboard becomes irrelevant.

In the dressing room our players slumped into their chairs bewildered, bemused by his ability to play not only traditional shots but unorthodox shots against what we thought was reasonably good bowling. In the end he broke the back of that Australian attack, and in a sense he broke the will of the team not only to forge a win but also to secure a draw.

John Buchanan was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi

Mr Big: Laxman went past Sunil Gavaskar's 236 to take the Indian record for the highest Test score

Mr Big: Laxman went past Sunil Gavaskar's 236 to take the Indian record for the highest Test score © AFP

The buddy
Venkatapathy Raju
"Kolkata was the first time I saw that Australian team set defensive fields"

When I walked out to join Laxman in the first innings we were in deep trouble. At the end of the second day we were 128 for 8, and frankly, I had given up any hope of us saving the Test. Chetan Chauhan, the team manager, and Madan Lal, a national selector, were in the dressing room that evening. They sat Laxman and myself down and narrated tales of how India had bounced back to save Test matches in the past. They talked to us about performances of people like Sunil Gavaskar, to motivate us. Laxman, who was listening intently, suddenly got up and said: "We have a good chance to win the match." I thought to myself: "He must be crazy."

But then I also knew what Laxman was capable of. At a very young age I saw him score a 60 against a quality attack in Hyderabad's Moin-ud-Dowla tournament. He went on to get triple-centuries for Hyderabad and showed that he could do big things.

Hyderabad's strength was always spin. Laxman learned the art of playing spin on matting pitches in Hyderabad. He had time to play his strokes and had really good wristwork, but what made him special was that he could hit against the spin and along the ground. And then he had the reach. I have seen him getting big runs against quality opposition like Karnataka, which had seasoned spinners such as Sunil Joshi. Well-established spinners would land it in the rough, but Laxman would reach out to the pitch of the ball and hit on-drives.

Laxman suddenly got up and said: "We have a good chance to win the match." I thought to myself: "He must be crazy"

He always loved his cover drives. When he was young we would trap him by placing a short cover and lure him into a drive. When he found a solution to that, we had to resort to a leg-stump line. I remember many times setting imaginary leg-side fields for him in the nets. Guys like Azhar, Tendulkar, Laxman, they had the ability to hit good balls for four so you could only aim to contain and frustrate them.

Kolkata was the first time I saw that Australian team set defensive fields. We had been used to watching them dominate Test matches, but Laxman forced them to spread their fielders. His attacking play against Warne was amazing: the back-foot punches were the standout strokes for me. Then there was this glide he hit against Glenn McGrath on the fourth afternoon - sheer timing. The ball just raced past backward point.

It was the greatest Test of my career and the greatest innings I have seen. The 281 allowed India to believe that we can win anywhere, against anyone, from any situation.

Venkatapathy Raju was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi

Ponting:

Ponting: "As we watched Laxman's score mount we wondered how he could go through extended runs of incredible success, and then even longer runs of no success at all against other opponents" © AFP

The counterpart
Ricky Ponting
"His work through the leg side was a source of wonderment to us"

We all knew VVS Laxman was capable of what he did in Kolkata, and we probably knew he was more capable of doing it in India than elsewhere. He had a great love affair with Sydney, and if you think about the Sydney pitch it was probably the one most like the subcontinental pitches.

Ahead of my first full Test tour of India in 1998, word had got back to the Australian team about this young batsman with a knack for making huge scores. He was tagged "the new Azharuddin" because he came from the same part of India and was said to have something of the same mastery of the wrists and the leg side. In the second Test on that trip he made a really fluent 95, batting with Navjot Sidhu, although we kept him under control otherwise.

The innings in Sydney a couple of years later really made his name, and started a trend of Laxman saving his best for us. But when you think about the situation of the game in 2001 and where it was heading, we didn't have any sort of feeling about what was going to happen. Over the course of 16 straight Test wins our confidence had built up so high, even the fact he batted well with the tail in the first innings and was moved up the order didn't worry us at all.

As it was, the decision to move Laxman up meant that he could basically continue on with the same innings, and keep playing the way he already had. It was not the only time he batted well with the tail against us: in 2010 with a bad back he guided India to a one-wicket victory in Mohali, although Pragyan Ojha probably remembers his occasionally angry calls between the wickets - even when batting with a runner - as much as the narrow win.

"Over the course of 16 straight Test wins our confidence had built up so high, even the fact he batted well with the tail in the first innings and was moved up the order didn't worry us"

Laxman was very calculating in that first innings about when to get down the wicket to Shane Warne or when to attack our pace bowlers, and he continued in that positive vein when he batted again. His work through the leg side, in particular, was a source of wonderment to many of us. He could hit balls on off stump anywhere from mid-on to backward square-leg. If you then went wider he could hit fluently through the off side off both feet.

The way we tried to target Laxman was to get the ball to bounce a bit around off stump, surprise him, and hopefully get an edge. But because of his movement across the stumps and tendency to work the ball through the leg side, bowlers would often get sucked into bowling straight and trying to hit him on the pads. That brought the game right into his wheelhouse: it was what he wanted you to do and he would score through there time after time.

Rahul Dravid played the perfect counterpoint innings to Laxman, and his contribution should not be forgotten. Steve Waugh threw me the ball at one point and to this day I still think I had Rahul lbw. It was not my day!

Another thought that went through our minds as we watched Laxman's score mount was how he could go through extended runs of incredible success, and then even longer runs of no success at all against other opponents. As he kept coming down the wicket to Warney and working him so beautifully against the spin, we wondered, "When's he going to have one of those series against us?" We envied South Africa and New Zealand for that.

It was a humbling experience for me too, in the middle of the worst series I ever put together personally. This was the flip side of India's batsmen coming to Australia and watching us score so heavily on fast, bouncy pitches while trying to work out how to do the same. I was in all sorts of trouble because I didn't trust the basics that I had, and kept finding new ways to get out. All the while, right in front of me, Laxman was being true to himself, and doing so in a way I've never forgotten.

Ultimately we bowled for near enough to two days at him without even looking like getting him out. As far as where that match and series finished up, there's very few better innings. Kumar Sangakkara put on an exhibition of pure batting in Hobart in 2007, and Kevin Pietersen's hundred on the final day at The Oval in 2005 is hard to forget (as much as I'd like to!), but Laxman's achievement in turning around the match and series against a team that had won games so conclusively up to that point takes some beating.

Ricky Ponting was speaking to Daniel Brettig

 

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