x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

A fresh start for VVS Laxman against Australia

The Indian batsman has a habit of dominating whenever his country face Australia, but he is not resting on his laurels.

The Australians did not know what hit them when VVS Laxman played one of the most memorable innings in cricket history in 2001. Hamish Blair / Allsport
The Australians did not know what hit them when VVS Laxman played one of the most memorable innings in cricket history in 2001. Hamish Blair / Allsport

 VVS Laxman has no fond memories of opening the batting. After a point, he felt such a misfit that he decided he would not play unless it was somewhere in the middle order. But, oddly, it was as a square peg in a round hole that he first served Australia notice of his talent.

To say that India's tour of Australia in 1999/2000 was a flop would be an understatement. They were swept aside 3-0 in the Tests, and the capitulation on the final day in Sydney highlighted all the inadequacies of a poorly selected and ill-balanced side. 

Laxman was the notable exception, blazing his way to 167 from just 198 balls. No other Indian batsman crossed 25. It had been a poor tour for him until then, but with his place in the side uncertain and the match almost certainly lost, Laxman played with a freedom and fluency that took the breath away.

It perhaps helped that one of the bowlers he faced that day was an old acquaintance from the Under 19 days. Brett Lee bowled hurricane-quick in that series, taking 13 wickets in two Tests, but even he was helpless against Laxman in full cry. 

"I don't think Under 19 experiences count for much," Laxman said, looking back at his first Test century. "But even at junior level, I played against top-class bowlers like [Jason] Gillespie and Lee. You also had Andrew Symonds as an all-rounder in that side. The same batch went on to play against me at international level."

A year later, having pillaged attacks in domestic cricket, he was back in the side, and this time he was batting where he wanted to. Prior to that now-famous Test at the Eden Gardens, Laxman averaged 27 from his 20 Tests. That match, and especially the second-innings 281, would change his life.

It made him an integral part of the most formidable middle order that India has ever had, but despite the fact that his 281 came from his favoured No 3 position, he was soon back down at Nos 5 or 6.

"It was a challenge because right from childhood, I'd batted at No 3," he said. "Your approach to a large extent is dictated by the situation. Sometimes, you're out there after wickets have fallen very quickly and your role is to revive the innings along with the tail. Or you go in when the batsmen have done really well and you're looking to declare. 

"It's something I've got used to now. I've also been lucky that I've played with tail-enders or bowlers who took a lot of pride in their batting. Unless they've not been comfortable with a bowler, I've always had the confidence to give them the strike. No 6 is a peculiar batting position in that a certain mindset will not work for you."

No matter where he has batted though, he has enjoyed tremendous success against the finest team of his era. From 24 Tests against Australia, Laxman has scored 2,204 runs at 55.1. Six of his 16 hundreds have come against them. 

"It's always a great feeling when you do well against a top side," he said. "I just enjoy playing against Australia. Hopefully, even this time I can contribute." Australia managed to shut him down just once, during the series in India in 2004 (123 runs in four Tests), but even then he produced a sparkling 69 in Mumbai to turn the tide of a low-scoring contest on a spiteful pitch.

"Ultimately, though, having done well in past series counts for little," Laxman said. "Each contest is a fresh start. How you perform depends largely on how well you've been able to prepare. You play against different bowlers, on different pitches, in very different match situations. So the past is nothing more than a guide." 

He discounts the notion that Australia's inexperienced attack - Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger and Nathan Hauritz have 72 Test caps between them - makes India overwhelming favourites to repeat their 2-0 triumph of 2008.

"I think Australia still have a very good attack," he said. "I saw them play Pakistan in England and they've done well in the recent past. We certainly won't underestimate them. Everyone knows that Australian teams don't yield an inch to the opposition." 

Having treated even the great Shane Warne with scant respect in the past, Laxman suggests that there will be no premeditated attack on Hauritz, who is expected to shoulder the spin burden if the promising Steven Smith doesn't play. 

"We've always been good players of spin bowling," he said. "I don't think we'll over-plan how to play Hauritz. I think it's important that we play our natural game, and that itself will put pressure on any bowler."

That come-from-behind victory in Kolkata will always have pride of place in Indian cricket history, but Laxman is adamant that the team cannot rely on such a turnaround to win this series. 

"Against Australia, it will be crucial that we get good first-innings scores," he said. "In India, that tends to decide Test matches. The pitches do deteriorate on the fourth and fifth days and the match can turn very quickly."

India have not lost a Test in Mohali since December of 1994, when Laxman was still making his way in domestic cricket. And if he maintains his very special form against those in baggy green, it will take an almighty effort from Ricky Ponting and his side to alter that statistic. 

sports@thenational.ae

The match-up

History


An India v Australia Test series has become like the Frank Worrell Trophy of yore – close, controversial and potentially epic. India’s come-from-behind triumph in Kolkata in 2001 to the drawn Test in Sydney in 2004 to Australia’s “Final Frontier” win in Nagpur a few months later – these have all been memorable matches.

Captains


• MS Dhoni, India: The stumper has often been considered lucky, but the fact is he has a shrewd cricket brain with the heart in the right place.
• Ricky Ponting, Australia: One of the world’s best batsmen has also been a lousy tourist of India. He will want to right that this time around.


Squads


• India: MS Dhoni (captain), Rahul Dravid, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, VVS Laxman, Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha, Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Virender Sehwag, Ishant Sharma, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Sachin Tendulkar, Murali Vijay
• Australia: Ricky Ponting (captain), Michael Clarke, Doug Bollinger, Peter George, Nathan Hauritz, Ben Hilfenhaus, Phillip Hughes, Michael Hussey, Mitchell Johnson, Simon Katich, Marcus North, Tim Paine, Steven Smith, Shane Watson, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc

Officials


Umpires: Ian Gould (England) and Billy Bowden (New Zealand)
Referee: Chris Broad (England)

Weather


With the monsoon rains yet to make a full retreat from northern India, the first Test in Mohali may see rain interruptions. The pitch will be damp and nippy. Bangalore’s sunny weather and comparatively dry surface, on the other hand, should favour spinners.