The Underachiever who Overachieved: VVS Laxman

Indian mythological names tended to be literal. Literal means that the person is named after how they appear or after their characteristics. Ashtavakra, the guru of the more famous Yajnavalkya, was named so because he was born with 8 deformities/bends in his body. The two famous names of the author of Mahabharata were also literal: Veda Vyasa (Splitter of the Vedas) and Krishna Dvaipayana (Black guy born on an island). Arjuna was also called Savyasachi (ambidextrous) because he was ….well ambidextrous. Draupadi was also called Krishna because she was dark skinned. Later on parents named their kids after those mythological characters except one set of parents.

On Andhra state formation day, a couple, who also happened to be doctors, gave birth to their only son. Intentional or not, they named their son Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman aka VVS aka Very Very Special Laxman. I am guessing they named him Very Very Special thinking he was going to be a special doctor like them but he chose cricket. I am sure he would have been a fine surgeon given how he surgically pierced well placed fields through impeccable timing. He became the third most famous Laxman that India produced after Dasaratha’s youngest son and the creator of the epic Common Man.

Teething Troubles

VVS was the classic Hyderabadi batsman in the mould of ML Jaisimha, Asif Iqbal (yes Pakistan’s Asif Iqbal) and the Raja Ravi Varma of the onside, Mohammad Azharuddin. He broke into the Indian side on back of heavy run scoring in the 1995-96 Indian first class season. He was only one of two players who scored more than 1000 runs that season. He was part of a powerful South Zone batting line-up that included doyens like WV Raman, MV Sridhar, Robin Singh, S Sharath. South Zone comfortably won the Duleep Trophy as VVS topped the run scoring charts. A formidable double act with MV Sridhar, who scored more than 1600 runs together, took Hyderabad to the Ranji Trophy semi-finals where they lost to Rahul Dravid’s Karnataka, the eventual champions.

He made his test debut on a dog of an Ahmedabad pitch against Donald’s and De Villiers’ South Africa. The 22 year old debutant showed poise in batting with the tail and scored his 1st 50 (one of only 2 in the match) to give India a fighting total on a deteriorating pitch. A hat-trick of on-a-hat-tricks by Javagal Srinath gave India their first win over the Proteas. The powerful middle order of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Azharuddin meant VVS was pigeonholed into opening the innings, a role in which he really struggled.

Too good for Ranji Trophy

In the midst of his on-again-off-again India career, VVS Laxman was on a Bradmanesque run in the Ranji Trophy. He scored 2780 runs at an average of 111 from 1997 to 2000. He played a total of only 11 games in 1997-98 and 1998-99 because of his India duty but still finished 11th and 7th in the scoring charts. After being dropped from India in 1999 and playing a full Ranji Trophy season VVS topscored with 1415 runs with 8 100s setting single season records in both categories. He took Hyderabad all the way to the Ranji Trophy final where they lost to Tendulkar’s Mumbai. In the midst of his purple patch, he became the first player in Ranji Trophy history to score two triple hundreds, a feat since matched by Pujara and bettered by Sir Ravindra Jadeja.

The greatest ever innings by an Indian batsman

Azharuddin’s involvement in the match-fixing controversy meant that there was one spot up for grabs in the famed Indian middle order. Steve Waugh’s great Australian side visited a year removed from the aforementioned scandal. They had arrived after winning 15 tests on the bounce. A run that included India’s 0-3 thrashing down under. A Kumble-less India struggled in Mumbai and were thrashed inside 3 days. Aussie domination continued for the first 3 days of the 2nd test as India were made to follow on. A VVS 50 in the first innings helped India reach 171 after they were in danger being bowled out for a two digit score.

Australia enforced the follow on as Ramesh and Das put on 52 for the first wicket. Laxman’s confident 50 in the first innings and the Wall with slight cracks made Ganguly send VVS at number 3. A smooth 109 runs during the day left India effectively at -20/4 with the Wall batting on 7. VVS & Wall batted all day on day 4 as India were ahead by 315 runs. VVS broke a 28 year old record of the highest score by an Indian batsman and looked to become first ever Indian triple centurion. A backs to wall rearguard was followed by an improbable 7 wicket post tea session meant that India leveled the series and ended Australia’s 16 game winning streak for the 1st time.

Match winning 50s

A slightly below average run and the Wall’s tremendous rise over the next few months meant they swapped the number 3 and 6 positions and VVS became an expert in batting with the tail. Although he scored some of the finest 100s (Adelaide 148, Sydney 178) by an Indian batsman, Laxman’s specialty was scoring the invaluable match winning 50. He showed this inclination on his debut when he helped India recover from 82/4 to 190. His twin 50s (69* & 74) in Port of Spain helped India to their first win the Caribbean in 26 years. His man of the match award was overshadowed by Tendulkar’s Bradman equaling 29th 100. His 2nd innings 74 came after India were 54/4 and India lost their last 5 wickets for 13 runs after he added 149 with Ganguly.

Another classic fifty by VVS was in the dust bowl of Wankhede in 2004 and gave India 104 runs to defend which they did through Murali Karthik. A 100 & a 50 that saved India from defeat against the Kiwis after India were made to follow on and fell to 18/3. Pick any great Indian test win from 2001 to 2012 and you’ll see invariably that VVS had a significant contribution to the victory. He scored 54 in India’s win at Nottingham, a 73 in the 2nd innings at Wanderers for India’s first ever win in SA, 76 & 124* in Napier to save the test.

From August to December 2010, an unfit VVS Laxman played 3 of his finest test innings to help India hold on to the number 1 test ranking. After losing Murali’s farewell test by 10 wickets and a high scoring draw in the 2nd test India needed to win and maintain their number 1 test ranking since 2008. A fourth innings (his only one) 103* in Colombo after India fell to 62/4 chasing 258 on a 5th day pitch to level the series. VVS was struggling with back spasms but took India comfortably past the finish line with Sehwag as runner.

Part 2 of the trilogy took place in Mohali as India chased 216 to take the lead. Laxman walked in at 76/5 which soon became 124/8. Struggling with back spasms, Laxman scored at a brisk pace ably aided by Ishant Sharma to take India home in a thriller. One of the greatest innings in a chase that consolidated India’s position atop the ICC Test rankings. This time it was Raina’s turn to do the running for Laxman.

Third part of the Laxman trilogy came in Durban. India were crushed by an innings in the 1st test for the loss of only 4 wickets as Zaheer Khan missed the Centurion test. Spurred by his return, India started their 2nd innings 74 runs ahead and soon went from 42/0 to 48/3. VVS walked in and carefully nudged India’s lead to over 300 on a juicy Kingsmead pitch. The seamers, led by Zak, finished the job to level the series and with it maintained their top ranking once again.

The Underachiever Overachieving

Laxman’s test record is barely above average. He has played 134 tests and 225 innings but has scored only 8781 runs and just 17 100s. He is number 11 on the list of players with most test appearances but stands way behind on the list of highest rungetters. Players like Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis, Dravid all had at least 10300 runs after 225 innings. Even if you give VVS some leeway as a mostly no 6 batsman, other lower middle order stalwarts like Waugh, Border and Chanderpaul had scored 500 more runs than VVS at the same stage.

All of the above mentioned players had at least 22 100s by that point. Laxman has only 17. For a player of Laxman’s immense talent these are, without any doubt, very poor returns. He averages just 45.97 even though he mostly played in the era of inflated averages. When guys like Samaraweera, Misbah, Du Plessis, Angelo Matthews and even Michael Clarke all average more than VVS with not even a fraction of his talent it somehow feels very very wrong. It is very clear from these numbers that VVS Laxman has incredibly underachieved relative to his talent.

Having said all that, it is also clear from Laxman’s heroics that he is indeed deserving of a place in India’s pantheon of great batsmen. He has as many, if not more, match winning/saving innings as Tendulkar and Dravid. The fact that most of them turned out to be 50s should not obstruct the fact that they were crucial. It is a paradoxical situation that an underachiever has as many crucial innings as the two best batsmen, Tendulkar & Dravid, have for their nations. By this measure the underachiever has surely overachieved and India will forever be thankful for the services of the legendary Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman.

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