He has earned the right to control his future
By the time V.V.S. Laxman walked to the ‘nets' at the WACA, bat-bag slung across shoulder, helmet in hand, the Indians were hard at work in their sections.
Rahul Dravid had arrived early with Trevor Penney, the fielding coach, and had discussed his batting grip, his back-lift, and the English system of batting.
Dravid had done what he had on Tuesday — getting Penney to act as if he were whipping the ball at him, so he could freeze his stroke in reaction and monitor the position of his bat and body as he lined up.
He had interrupted his session — been persuaded to interrupt it, to be accurate — to address the press; the first round of ‘nets' had begun.
In this time, Laxman completed some slips-catching, stretched himself on a giant, purple medicine ball, and began his walk from the ground — with its still green pitch — to the practice area.
If he was feeling the familiar pressure of his place in the side being questioned from outside, it didn't show in the tranquil Laxman walk, a smile at the ready.
“I don't think it has affected Laxman too much,” said Dravid, when asked if he sensed Laxman was under pressure. “To be honest, I have been with him the last two days — I haven't read some of these comments — and I don't think Lax is bothered either.
“We have been around a long time. We have learned to accept this as part and parcel of the job, of what we do. If you are going to keep playing and if you are going to put yourself up for criticism, then you have got to accept it. Personally I know Lax, he is pretty relaxed character. He is not going to get bothered. He is a top-class performer. I am backing him to really come good in one of these two Test matches.”
At the ‘nets', Laxman waited his turn, putting his 37-year-old body through another set of stretches. “Shot, M.S.,” he called out to his captain when Dhoni made a particularly impressive drive. Finally it was time for him to bat. The spinners came first, R. Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, and local twirlers. Laxman dispensed with the niceties soon enough, getting down on one knee to hit the slog-sweep developed over the last two years.
On Tuesday, Dravid had ‘spotted' Laxman's batting, looking for something that might be amiss. On Wednesday, it was the turn of another of the Golden Generation, Sachin Tendulkar. Dravid had wondered if Laxman when tapping the bat in his stance was leaning over, losing his poise, and opening himself up — or at least so it appeared from a distance. Dravid had then acknowledged the change when Laxman made it.
Tendulkar monitored Laxman's feet from close while the stylist took the seamers of Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, and Vinay Kumar. Laxman concentrated on leaving the first few deliveries.
The timing wasn't as consistently pure as it often is with Laxman's strokeplay, but, excepting Zaheer's left-armers, nothing caused him to exert his powers.
Tendulkar spoke at length before Laxman had a set of throw-ups, quick under-arm throws projected from a kneeling position to simulate the lifting ball. The back-foot punch, a stroke of profit on bouncy wickets, was employed. The rhythm of the throws quickened, so he had to hasten his reactions.
When it was over, Laxman joked with Zaheer and Ashwin, intervened when an overzealous security guard held a fan back, and left after signing autographs. The sense of calmness remained intact. It's this calmness that India must make sure not to disrupt.
For some reason, Laxman has had to endure more scrutiny than his peers; his is the first name to be spoken about every time there's talk about someone needing to go. Laxman has had one unexceptional year, 2011, after four gainful ones. 2010 moreover was a year like no other, three improbably great match-winning innings.
And even in 2011, barring the two innings in Melbourne, when Australia reduced him to mortality by sustaining pressure, he hasn't appeared a lesser player at any stage. India has had more patience with others.
Rahul Dravid was allowed his lean spell, and rightly so; Virender Sehwag hasn't done anything of note outside the sub-continent since Adelaide 2008, but his value is correctly seen. Sourav Ganguly, a level below these three as a Test batsman, wasn't questioned as often even when he was in poorer form.
While there is merit in the argument that India needs a batting transition, this isn't the time. Transitions are planned activities, not patch-up jobs in reaction. With a series and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy to be saved, Laxman must be allowed to be himself. As he showed here at the WACA in 2008 and several times before and since, Laxman does what very few in the history of cricket have — win matches off his own bat. He has earned the right to control his future; knowing the man, it's a privilege he won't abuse.