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The Zen Master

The Zen Master
Highlights

The Zen Master, Test batsman, Dravid, Sumit Chakraberty. Everyone remembers Laxman's 281 in Kolkata to turn the tables on the Australians after India...

To bat under pressure in the second innings and anchor a victory in alien land is the best contribution a Test batsman can make to his team. VVS Laxman did it four times and Dravid thrice, while Tendulkar never managed it even once outside Asia, points out Sumit Chakraberty in his book

VVS Laxman had a porous defence, tended to poke at waist-high balls outside off-stump, and lacked Tendulkar's full range of shots. He had a Test average of 45, laterally inverse to Tendulkar's 54. But in his temperament under pressure, he stood head and shoulders above the little master.

Everyone remembers Laxman's 281 in Kolkata to turn the tables on the Australians after India were made to follow on. That was a terrific innings, no doubt, as he and Dravid kept McGrath and Warne, Johnson and Kasprowicz wicketless for the entire fourth day, but it came in a situation where nobody expected India to win. In fact, the Indians themselves were playing for a draw as they batted for an hour on the last day before declaring. It was an Australian batting collapse after tea in the final session of the Test, when the ball started spinning sharply, that turned Laxman's 281 into a match-winning effort. From the point of view of courage under pressure, more than the Kolkata innings, it was what Laxman did in the following Test that showed his true worth.

Laxman's 281 in Kolkata would not have counted for so much if India had not then clinched the final Test in Chennai. Tendulkar made an important century in the first innings there, after Matthew Hayden's double century. But India would have still lost that game after their batsmen succumbed to pressure in the fourth innings when they had to score 155 to win the series. The only Indian batsman to withstand the pressure from Ponting's pack was Laxman. He made 66 in a card where the next highest score was 25. Even Laxman got out with 20 runs to go, but a plucky knock of 22 by wicket-keeper Sameer Dighe took India past the finishing line with only two wickets standing.

Laxman did this time and again in his career - the more intense the pressure, the more Zen-like would he get. He could not finish the job in Chennai in that final Test against Australia, but he did it almost single-handed nine years later in Mohali with an unbeaten 73 in the last innings. This too was against the Australians who had India reeling at 124 for 8, requiring another 92 runs to win the Test. Laxman batted with Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha to take India home. He had to shield the tailenders from the more difficult bowler, hit boundaries even though the field was spread out when he was facing, and decide towards the end of each over whether to try for a boundary or a single to keep the strike. In between all that, he had to counsel the tailenders to keep their calm and stick to a simple plan. To be able to do this for nearly three hours and come out on top is what makes Laxman the Zen master.

Laxman's match-winning contributions under pressure in the second innings were even more creditable when they came outside the sub-continent. India has had only two Test match victories in South Africa, where the bounce and seam movement are disconcerting for our batsmen. Laxman figured in both those victories.

In the 2010-11 series, he made 96 in the second innings against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on a dicey wicket at Durban. It was a low-scoring game in which no other batsman from either side made a fifty. He was also the top scorer in the first innings with 38. Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan deserve credit for bowling India to victory, but it was VVS who made the difference between the two sides.

In the earlier 2006-07 series, when India won the first Test at Johannesburg, Laxman's 73 under pressure against Shawn Pollock and Makhaya Ntini in the second innings came in a situation where no other batsman could make a half century.

One of India's most stirring victories came against Australia at Perth in January 2008, after Steve Bucknor's shenanigans had defeated India in Sydney and probably contributed to passions flaring up between the two sides. India were precariously placed at 125 for 5 in the second innings, with Laxman being the only specialist batsman left standing by Brett Lee and Shawn Tait, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark. He was the last man out at 294. His 79 was the only half century in the Indian second innings. He managed a 51-run stand with tenth man RP Singh against that attack on that pitch. Laxman's partnerships down the order set a challenging target of 413 for the Aussies who made a spirited bid for it before being all out for 340. That's how the Perth Test was won.

How does Tendulkar compare to the Zen master in this context? Well, there is nothing to compare. Not once in his Test career of 24 years to date did Tendulkar cross 50 under pressure in the second innings to help India win a Test match outside the sub-continent. Laxman did it four times - apart from his exploits at Johannesburg, Durban and Perth, he had a 149-run partnership with Sourav Ganguly in the second innings at Port of Spain in 2002, coming in at the fall of Tendulkar's wicket at 56 for 4, to give India just enough runs for a narrow win.

The Wall stood tall

Rahul Dravid did it too. His most memorable match-winning innings under pressure in the second innings abroad was at Adelaide, where he remained 72 not out in the end, all the other specialist batsmen having fallen in the course of the run chase of 233. Dravid had earlier made a double century in the first innings of that match, sharing a triple century partnership with Laxman.

Adelaide was not the only such triumph for Dravid either. He crossed fifty in the second innings on two other occasions in helping India win matches outside the sub-continent, both at Kingston, Jamaica. The second time was in 2011, just a year before his retirement. Dravid's was the last wicket to fall, after he had scored 112 in India's second innings of 252 in which tailender Amit Mishra's 28 was the second highest contribution.

Tendulkar has been compared to Bradman no less. For a modern-day Bradman not to have achieved even once what Dravid and Laxman did so many times is puzzling.

(From Master Laster: What They Don't Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar, By Sumit Chakraberty, Publishers: Hay House, `299)

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