Laxman proved that you don’t have to behave like a Mike Tyson to deal the killer blow, writes Nirmal Shekar

FOR many of us, retirement is as inevitable as death and taxes. We know when it will come about and the more prudent among us would plan well enough for it, for all the caprices of the unpredictable game of life in which we are all players. But for a sportsman, especially one who has accomplished a lot, as inevitable as retirement might be, the ‘when’ looms as a major issue, often loaded with emotional resonance.

The first thing is to deal with the mother of all sporting cliches — go when they ask Why and not when they say Why Not.

The amorphous ‘they’ might include fans, serious critics, selectors and a lot of others. This apart, dozens of things come to mind when a sportsperson contemplates quitting. It is a fine art that few have managed to master.

For life after sport does not come at the age of 60 for a sportsman, as it does for most of us holding routine jobs. It often comes in the early 30s for many athletes. In the event, where does V.V.S. Laxman’s departure fit in among many other famous instances of leave taking in the world of sport?

Somewhere in the middle, I guess. While some believe that he should have played his last Test at home and then said goodbye to fans, others might think that he timed it right. But the truth is this: Laxman’s best years are not ahead of him. And to his credit, he sensed that.

Logical

In what should have been a huge emotional moment for him, Laxman let his rationality prevail, as did his friend and great partner Rahul Dravid. The point is, he did not leave it to the selectors. While it could be argued that he could have made yet another magical match-winning hundred and lapped the ground on his team-mates’ shoulders, we must remember that in the world of sport, dreams can often turn into nightmares. Laxman did the most logical thing.

He was not living in a world of illusions, as have many players greater than him. The stylish player from Hyderabad looked reality in the face and chose his path into the sunset. Laxman’s might not have been the perfect goodbye, but then, how many sportspersons get to go out on top?

1n 2002, on an unforgettable opening day at Flushing Meadows, the great Pete Sampras, tears streaming down his cheeks, waved to thousands of fans after announcing his departure from a sport he had adorned with unmatched class, grace and success. It was exactly a year after he had beaten arch-rival Andre Agassi on the same court to win his 14th Grand Slam title and he had not played a match since then.

But for every Sampras, there are tens of dozens of sportspersons — good and great — who simply fade away, often unsung. I can’t remember the last Test match in which Gundappa Viswanath played. On the other hand, you can wake me up at 3 a.m. after a long night out at a pub and I will still tell you that Sunil Gavaskar made an unforgettable 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore in his last Test innings in 1987 on a wicket where the ball was behaving like a demented king cobra.

Of course, there is a very rare category of sportspersons — the greatest of the greats — in whose case the manner of departure hardly matters. The peerless Don Bradman’s place in history would have hardly changed if he had made the four runs he required in his last Test innings at The Oval for a perfect Test average of 100, instead of falling to Eric Hollies for a duck.

Now that Laxman has called it quits, connoisseurs will forever celebrate his incomparable 281 against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001 — the only Test innings by an Indian to make the top 10 in Wisden’s list of 100 best Test innings.

But it would be a great pity if he were to be remembered for that solitary feat of courage, endurance and skills. For, Laxman was one of the greatest match-winners of his era.

We often bemoan the lack of killer instinct in Indian sportsmen. Laxman possessed it by the loads, although looking at him you wouldn’t have thought he did. He proved that you don’t have to resort to sledging or spitting at an opponent to succeed.

Rescue acts

Laxman’s rescue acts in the face of adversity have been widely chronicled. He mastered the art of coming up with something special when the chips were down, especially in the critical stage of a match. He proved that you don’t have to behave like a Mike Tyson to deal the killer blow.

My dear, departed friend, Peter Roebuck, had several friendly verbal jousts with me at the bar at the Madras Cricket Club whenever he visited. The talk almost always veered around to who the most “watchable” batsman of the last two decades was.

I miss Peter both as a friend and as a longtime The Hindu columnist. I am sure he would have emailed me within hours of hearing the news to say that he would be filing a column to celebrate Laxman’s achievements. Peter’s crisp, lean and matchless prose would have adorned these columns, making this — my own Comment — redundant. For, whenever he talked of Laxman, Peter seemed to believe that he was talking of someone who was truly extraordinary.

That’s the sort of opinion Peter had of Laxman, reserving for him a special place in his heart. He was an accomplished cricketer and celebrated columnist. While I respected his opinion, and valued the many evenings I spent with him, I myself couldn’t look beyond Sachin and Lara.

It is always a temptation and a habit — even among hardened professionals — to over-rate sportsmen when they quit.

Was Laxman an all-time great? My answer is, yes, in the context of Indian cricket; but at the world level, he might have fallen marginally short, Yet I will always remember him for this: even as an assassin, Laxman had the affectless calm of a Zen master. Adios Lachu Bhai.