Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman. Or Very Very Special Laxman. Whatever name you prefer!
Personally, I don't remember much of VVS Laxman before the 281. I am quite sure a lot of people don't. In fact, pre-281, I can count my memories of him on my fingertips. I do remember reading about the Sydney hundred in 2000 (first one of that love affair with the ground) in newspapers, and I remember him opening against Pakistan in 1999. Even then, I remember more of his opening partner Sadagoppan Ramesh than him from that series.
Possibly the most lasting memory for me of VVS Laxman's pre-281 career for me is that moment when he took Wasim Akram's catch to seal Anil Kumble's 10 for 74. But post that 281, it all changed. The memories are so many that it's hard to pick one out that stands mightily above the rest.
That innings of 281 itself should unquestionably rank amongst the best ever played by any batsman in the world through the history of cricket. It marked the creation of a clear transitional divide between eras in Indian cricket. From Day 4 of that Eden Gardens Test (14th March 2001) to the day India won the World Cup again (2nd April 2011) - it was 10 years and 19 days of wondrous joy for the Indian cricket followers. For sure, there were troughs too, but none would be talked of much in hindsight when this era is looked at in its entirety henceforth.
I could not watch that innings of 281 live - neither that match, nor that series. I lived in a hostel back then, and all the cricket I followed was over the All India Radio and the newspapers. And following that match on the radio was an emotional turbulence of enormous proportions. First, there was frustration over the first 2 days (though there was the brief delight late on Day 1 when Harbhajan Singh claimed a hat-trick), then resignation on the 3rd day, then the feeling of small joys as Day 4 progressed that turned into one of hope by the time it ended... and then it ended with euphoria on Day 5. All of it possible because of three men - Harbhajan Singh, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Day 4 of that Test match was the day I learnt a new word in Hindi - 'kalai'. I heard it so many times over the day uttered by the radio commentators, that mid-way through the day, I had to ask someone what it meant, and finally understood it meant 'wrist'. That was also the day I came closest to being caught sneaking in a portable 'Walkman with Radio' inside the classroom (which I often did). Thankfully, I escaped with the help of a couple of friends who were being supplied the scores by me, and we carried on through the day as Laxman and Dravid carried on their vigil.
The first time that I remember watching VVS Laxman bat in Test cricket after that 281, was in West Indies - Port of Spain 2002. In a largely forgotten 2nd innings effort, Laxman scored 70-odd and in the company of Sourav Ganguly, ensured a 300+ target for the West Indies, which eventually proved enough. If my memory serves me right, when he got out, he had ensured a target of 300+, which could not be stretched much further as the tail collapsed.
Post 2004, there are many memories - Mumbai 2004 (vs. Australia), Johannesburg 2006, Delhi 2007 (vs. Pakistan), Sydney 2008, Perth 2008, Kolkata 2010 (vs. South Africa), Colombo 2010, Mohali 2010 (vs. Australia), Durban 2010 and Bridgetown 2011 stand out. What's more, all but two of them came in Indian wins - and both those should have been Indian wins but for bad umpiring (Sydney 2008) and bad weather (Bridgetown 2011).
But these scores are just numbers - they will be archived and brought up in future in debates and analyses. What they can never convey was the art called VVS Laxman's batting. It was wizardry of the highest levels, and could leave not just the spectators, but even his opponents mesmerised. I do not remember Azharuddin much at the peak of his career for I was very young back then, but I am sure he couldn't have been any 'wristy-er' than VVS Laxman - it just seems humanly impossible.
Those flicks to leg off balls way outside the line of off-stump aside, I will always miss those drives through the cover off spinners where the left leg moved right to the pitch of the ball and the right leg moved sideways as he completed the movement to finish the shot with a flourish. I have seen many beautiful cover drives played and will see many more in future, but whenever I see one finish with the back leg moving sideways in flourish, I am always going to remember VVS Laxman.
While Laxman did have a decent couple of years in ODI cricket, I will always imagine him as a smiling character in white who, when not batting, would be chirping away with his teammates at second slip or gully or at a catching position for a drive on either side of the pitch. While we all celebrate his batting mastery (or should I call it 'wizardry' again), I wouldn't want to overlook the fact that he was a fine catcher too. It will be an oft-overlooked fact that he has 135 catches too in Test cricket. In his youth, he fielded well at short leg and other close-in positions too, and it's only recently that he became a liability in the field.
Another one of the endearing memories would be one of Laxman always in the balcony of the dressing room, the widest smile on the face, whenever the time came to celebrate a teammate reaching a hundred or other such milestone. If he wasn't the non-striker, he would always invariably be there to salute his teammate and share that joy.
Oh VVS, thou shalt be missed dearly. But thank you! Thank you for the joy of your batting!
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