Counted amongst the ‘fabulous five’ of Indian batting along with Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Sehwag, V.V.S. Laxman, when in full flow, mesmerised fans with his wristy play and silken, effortless touch. Australia, in particular, bore the brunt of his prowess as he piled up 2,434 runs in 29 Tests against them, with six centuries. An Amitabh Bachchan fan, Laxman strode Test cricket like Big B stamped Bollywood, tallying 8,781 runs in 134 Tests, averaging an above par 49.37, though he never played in a 50-over World Cup. He recently launched his autobiography 281 And Beyond (Westland Sport), which “candidly” chronicles his life and times. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Qaiser Mohammad Ali:
Have you been totally candid in your autobiography?
Absolutely candid. During my career I never expressed myself openly. These days, I give a lot of motivational talks. Two years ago, when I gave a talk to an MNC in Goa, an elderly person told me that my 45-minute talk inspired him and that it would be valuable for his son and grandson. He also said that I should write a book. That was the trigger for this autobiography. I’ve read a lot of autobiographies of eminent people. I have learned a lot by reading books on Mahatama Gandhi, Vivekananda and Andre Agassi.
You scored 2,434 runs in 29 Tests, including six centuries against Australia—this includes 1,236 runs with four centuries on Australian soil. Why this disdain, or liking, for Aussie bowlers?
I’ve always enjoyed playing against them. Even when I represented India under-19 against them in 1994, I was the highest scorer. The reason could be their attacking, competitive nature. They were probably the best bowling unit in our generation, and they could do well anywhere in the world. So, their never-say-die attitude got the best out of me. Also, the In.dian team challenged them and raised the bar whenever we played against them.
"I thought I deserved a place in the 2003 World Cup team. Hurt, I almost left the game; went away to the US to get over it."
They were ‘competitive’, but you were always retained a ‘good boy’ image.
I never showed my emotions. I believed that being competitive or having the killer instinct doesn’t mean that you throw tantrums. It’s about showing mental toughness when it matters the most. People relate sledging to Australians, but they didn’t sledge me much. It never perturbed me. Smart sledging is all about whom to sledge and how to do it. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh are the smartest sledgers I’ve seen. The impact they had was unbelievable.
Your 281 against Australia in Calcutta was a seminal knock—then the highest Test score by an Indian.
After the first practice session at the Eden, I developed back spasms. When physiotherapist Andrew Leipus made me see my back in the mirror, it was titled towards one side. I was in tears. But, thanks to Andrew, I played that Test. It was a monumental match because of the situation we were in—India followed on, being 274 runs behind, but went on to win by 171 runs. Rahul Dravid and I didn’t talk much during that partnership [376 for the fifth wicket in the second innings]; we just said “one more over” to each other, finished it, and said the same thing again and again. You’ve to have goals, even in challenging situations; you’ve to break them into smaller goals to achieve the bigger goal.
In their upcoming four-Test series in Australia, would India have an advantage in the absence of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft?
Yes, without a doubt. India starts as favourites, for they are a settled side. If India play to their potential they can win the series. But it’s very important for the batsmen to pile up a big score in the first innings. If they do that in overseas conditions, India have the firepower to take 20 wickets. If not, you are always chasing the game, forced into a defensive approach. To start the series on a winning note is crucial. I hope the mistakes India made in South Africa and England are not repeated, as when you are playing in away conditions it’s important to win the crucial moments. The team that wins those three-four crucial moments wins the match. In South Africa and England, India didn’t win those crucial moments.
But the Aussies obviously know their conditions and pitches better than the Indians.
About pitches, I’ve realised from my experience that the first tour to a country is always challenging. From the second one onwards, you know what to expect and as professionals you prepare yourself to do well. So, Indian batsmen, with their 2014 experience, will do well even on these pitches.
Do you think a lot of responsibility would be on captain Virat Kohli to help India to big first-innings totals?
It cannot be only Virat, because this team has experience and class in its batting line-up. It’s about everyone going out with a gameplan and sticking to it. Virat was so successful in England recently as he didn’t repeat his mistakes of 2014, especially the area where he was susceptible was now his strong point. The discipline he showed in leaving the ball outside the off stump was critical in scoring those runs [593 at 59.30 in five Tests]. So every batsman will have to take responsibility.
How do you rate India’s bowling attack?
It’s a complete bowling attack—there’s variety and firepower. The five fast bowlers can bowl quick and are very skilful. In the spin department, again there’s variety and quality.
"Kohli-led India are the favourites in Australia. But they’ve to score big first innings scores and win the crucial moments."
In 2004, when Sehwag broke your Indian record of the highest Test score in Multan with a superb 309, did he say something like “sorry” to you?
No. I was very happy for him. Viru is such a confident cricketer, also as a person, and he’s unique. His strength is his mind and his approach towards life. After my 281, we played an ODI against Australia in Bangalore. When we reached Pune and were having dinner, Viru suddenly said, “Laxman bhai, you missed scoring the first triple Test century for India. This is something I’m going to do”. And he hadn’t played a Test till then. I was surprised. So, when he got the triple in Multan, he said, “I had told you so”.
After the prolific 1999-2000 domestic season, in which you amassed 1,415 runs, and after the 2001 Australia Test series, did you think you had it in you to become a successful ODI player as well?
Between 1998, when I made my ODI debut, and 2000, I didn’t play too many ODIs. I batted at No. 5 or No. 6. But I understood the basic formula of scoring runs in ODIs after that prolific domestic season.
And you missed the 2003 World Cup—your biggest disappointment—and went to the US to get over it.
I was hurt and disappointed because I thought I deserved a place in the team. I almost left the game. I went off to the US to spend almost two months with my childhood friends—doctors and engineers who didn’t understand the game too much. I rediscovered my passion for the game when I missed hitting the cricket ball.