Cricket today is a lot about statistics and analysis, about probabilities and predictions and about fitness and flexibility — it is almost as if the modern version of the gentleman’s game has become more cerebral than physical and what happens between your ears is as important as what happens between the 22 yards. But even today, once in a while, there comes somebody who is bare knuckling all the odds and the story matters more than the statistics. The story of VVS Laxman, arguably the least celebrated of India’s Fabulous Five that comprised the revered troika of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid in addition to the effervescent Virender Sehwag, is one such story that makes everyone stand up and take notice.
281 and Beyond begins where Laxman became a part of every Indian cricket fan’s dictionary. The last innings by an Indian batsman in Test cricket that cricket lovers from this generation swore by was arguably the 136 by Sachin Tendulkar against Pakistan where India eventually fell short by 12 runs. But 2001 was different — Australia was the clearly dominant team in all formats of the game. The all-conquering Australia juggernaut had reached India on the cusp of creating history and if the first match was anything to go by, there was nothing to stop them. But Laxman did — following on in the second innings, he scored 281 and became ‘Very Very Special’ Laxman.
Why did Adam Gilchrist put on his batting glove with a squash ball inside it in World Cup 2007? Why did Sachin Tendulkar not play a single shot on the off-side in his 241* against Australia? Why did MS Dhoni go to bat ahead of Yuvraj Singh in World Cup 2011? In all these cases, we know how the innings went but the questions interest us because we want to know the before and after. Similarly, when you read the first chapter of the book, you get to know how Laxman could have missed the Test where he created history. True to his image of being a honest and sincere individual who went about his business without bothering anyone, the anecdotes in the story sound real and human. Before his epic innings, a slipped disc had almost ruled out Laxman from the contest. He remembers: “I said: ‘Tell me you can fix this Andrew.’ There was a salty taste in my mouth. I didn’t even realise I had started to cry. Perhaps it was the sight of a grown man weeping that did the trick.”
Laxman has co-authored the book with senior journalist, R Kaushik, who has followed his journey since he was 15 years old. Kaushik’s voice never becomes overbearing and yet carries a distinct flavour. The narrative encapsulates the various highs and lows of the cricketer’s life even as it retains its tone of someone who is humble with a head clearly sewed to his shoulders with feet firmly on the ground. The book captures his journey as a child in a family surrounded by doctors who still got support to pursue his dream. He drives home the point about being disciplined when he says, “The results take care of themselves if you do the processes right.” All in all, Laxman’s story is the tale of a person who doesn’t let the odds get the better of him and who proves that good people do not always finish last.
What I personally really liked about the book is the ease with which Laxman is able to oscillate between talking about the other four in the Fabulous Five of Indian batting as well as share a warm and heartfelt pen-portrait of the newcomers who became big names in front of him. He doesn’t only describe his experience of playing along Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Ganguly or the old war horse Anil Kumble but also describes his time seeing the likes of Zaheer Khan and MS Dhoni become household names in world cricket.
Outside his 281, most people remember VVS Laxman as a stylish batsman who gave his best especially against Australia. However, through 281 and Beyond, you get to see different facets of him. The injuries that followed him through his career, when the cool-headed Laxman ‘yelled’ at Rahul Dravid. The time when he was unsure about having a young and vibrant Zaheer Khan as his roommate to the time where they cemented a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. To the time where he worked in a petrol station — arranging food and cleaning the floor — during his time with Brandford League in England to alter the image of ‘laid back Hyderabadis’.
Call it my romantic self or the place where fact meets fan theory but between the lines, not obvious to many, under the layer of a person who seems happy with making most of the opportunities that he got, I also felt a sense of anguish. After all, the performances of the stylish wristy Hyderabadi batsman often do beg the question — what could have been if he did get to play the World Cup.
In more than six years since when Laxman has quit international cricket listening to his inner voice, this question has come to my mind many times. He could have crossed personal milestones and broken more records. After all, he had been named in the series against New Zealand in India which included a test in his own city. But he quit on his own terms when people were still asking ‘Why’ than ‘Why Not’.
As a cricket lover, I have read all cricket autobiographies and biographies that cricketers from my generation have dished out in the last few years. There were books where I felt that the author wanted to correct or whitewash the narrative to suit him, there were other books where I felt cheated because I knew every incident that was mentioned but there were few books that really made me see inside the person up, close and personal.
I will stick my neck out to say that after my favourite cricket autobiography from 2005, Steve Waugh’s Out of My Comfort Zone, this is by far the most honest account from a cricketer about his journey and you must not miss this.
Writer: Aakash Aggarwal
Courtesy: The Pioneer