As Eden Gardens hosts the second Test between India and New Zealand, minds go back to 2001, when the venue witnessed one of Indian cricket's greatest ever moments. Facing a follow-on and a certain defeat against Australia, the Indians were helped out by a magnificent 281 by the 'very very special' VVS Laxman, still considered by many as one of the best cricket innings of all time.
Few players, past or present, have been as elegant as VVS; few have matched his sublime wristwork. In his long, 16-year-long career, the Hyderabadi batsman has played quite a few match-winning knocks. And it's not just his cricket that separates him from the rest; qualities like humility, discipline and the habit of putting the 'team before self' formula were also hallmarks of Laxman's batting. Now 41, Laxman attributes all of these values to Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
Recalling how, at the age of 17, he had to make a tough decision, whether to follow his parents' footsteps and become a doctor or pursue his dream of playing cricket for his country, Laxman describes his decision-making process: "For any 17-year-old, it is not an easy decision to make, especially when it isn't in your own hands to see your dream come to its logical fruition."
In Mumbai on Thursday for the Dilip Sardesai memorial lecture, Laxman said he had the backing of his parents and maternal uncle, but it came with a time limit: He had five years to translate him dream into a reality.
"If I didn't do so by then (before turning 22), it was back to education, to a degree in medicine to start with, and to serve the people with a stethoscope rather than the nation with a cricket bat," he said.
However, he was quick to add that the anxiety never weighed him down. He credited the learning he got at a young age from his paternal grandfather, who was a Bhagvad Gita teacher.
"Having understood the teachings in the Gita, I derived inspiration from Chapter 12, Bhakti Yoga, which talks, among other things, of doing one's best, surrendering oneself and not worrying about the results of one's actions," he said. "I came to terms with that fact that I could not influence my selection one way or the other, apart from scoring runs and lots of them," he added.
Results were not in his hands, Laxman said, and all he had to do was to be dedicated and committed towards the sport and ensure that he left no stone unturned to give his heart and soul to the game.
"Those teachings were to remain with me for the rest of my cricketing career, and beyond," said the former Indian batsman, who went on to play 134 Tests to become the fourth highest run-getter for India, only behind Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar.
Laxman joined the likes of Dravid and Anil Kumble, who have spoken at the Sardesai lecture in previous memorials. Recalling the first time he met Sardesai, Laxman said it was when the former India batsman had come to meet the then Hyderabad Ranji team coach Motganhalli Jaisimha. "It offered me a whole new perspective about what the game meant to these individuals, and what lessons someone like me, in the early stages of an international career, could imbibe," he said, adding that Sardesai's "infectious enthusiasm for cricket" struck him the most.
Laxman said he was impressed with the manner in which current skipper Virat Kohli has been leading the Test side. "Virat has blossomed to become the key batsman in the side as well as the leader of the Test squad. His transformation has been remarkable," Laxman said, cautioning that as batsman, Kohli still has room to improve in the longest format of the game.
He also held forth on day-and-night Tests, calling the experiment the future of the sport. "But it's a work in progress and some concerns need to be resolved before implementing it," he said. "Concerns like dew, for instance, will be an especially problematic concern, especially in India where cricket is a winter sport. How do we tackle this? How do we ensure balance between bat and ball is maintained? How can we ensure we don't compromise on our traditional strength, which is spin?"
Following the lecture, Rajdeep Sardesai, renowned journalist and son of Dilip Sardesai, recollected an incident. In 2001, when Sardesai senior saw Laxman's performance in the Duleep Trophy, rang Rajdeep and said, "The selectors are clueless, they don't know anything. I haven't seen anyone playing this well against spin in a very long time. This is the classical manner in which players used to play against spin."
Following this, when Laxman failed to impress in the first Test of the 2001 series against Australia, Rajdeep questioned the wisdom of his father's words. "You don't understand sport," his father then said to him, Rajdeep recalled.
And how correct could he be? In the very next match, VVS went to play the innings of his life, against a Shane Warne-led bowling line-up to hand India an inspiring victory at Kolkata, thereby announcing him at the world stage.
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