Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer
There was a vulnerability about VVS Laxman's batsmanship, a delicacy, that somehow enhanced the brilliance of his strokeplay. It made him the most loved of the middle order in India's golden age. Laxman was a throwback to an era of silken batsmanship, of velvet touches and all-round grace.
The men around him among India's Fabulous Four, were held in awe; Laxman's apparent fragility made him all too human, and therefore loveable. People who had never met the man spoke of his gentleness, their opinion based on nothing more than his cover drive or the ability to play the leg glance in the old-fashioned manner.
Mentally, he was as tough as the Tendulkars, Dravids and Gangulys who formed that middle order, but he seemed to whisper his instructions to the ball to send it screaming to the fence where the others tended to shout at it. Soft hands, a benign attitude, a fine touch - yet the ball left the bat with the air of someone rushing for an appointment he is late for. If a portrait of Indian cricket were to be painted, pastel colours would best represent Laxman, a cultured man who dealt in cultured strokeplay.
As befits a team man, his greatest fans were within the team. During a 353-run partnership in Australia, Tendulkar (who made 241 in that innings) said, "I just decided I was going to stay there and watch from the non-striker's end."
It was a vantage point much favoured by his colleagues. Dravid said of Laxman's batting during their 376-run partnership in Kolkata which turned a Test match against Australia: "I enjoyed it from the other end. It was like watching a highlights package."
Batsmen like Laxman do not assert their command in averages or in consistent centuries, yet tend to play the defining innings of an era. That 281 in Kolkata inaugurated the golden age of Indian cricket, and was voted time and again as the best innings played by an Indian. There is no record of his skipper Sourav Ganguly telling his players, like Bradman did when Stan McCabe was batting at Nottingham: "Come and watch this, you will never see the likes of it again." But the comparison is not so much with McCabe's batting as with the fact that even in the Bradman era, the two or three defining innings were played by McCabe. In the Tendulkar era, Laxman's 281, his 167 in Sydney and the 96 in Durban were the defining innings.
For someone who played 134 Tests, Laxman, amazingly was never in the running for the captaincy; he was never in a World Cup squad. In his early years, he wasn't even a certainty in the team. That a batsman of such obvious class was often challenged by lesser men and one-Test wonders for a place in the squad was testimony to the short-sightedness of the selectors. Perhaps they equated effortlessness with lack of effort. Everything Laxman did looked effortless - but it shouldn't fool anybody into thinking that he was too casual. A famous cartoonist once explained his craft thus: Half my job is the effort of drawing the cartoon, the other half is erasing the signs of such effort.
Batting came more easily to Laxman than it did to most, but that is not why he is in the Indian pantheon with 8781 runs, the fourth highest aggregate behind Tendulkar, Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar. He takes his place by right as a fully paid-up member of the Wristy Batsmanship Club, one of Indian cricket's two great traditions, the other being spin bowling.
It is a club with a distinguished membership - it has Ranji and Duleep (although neither played for India), Vijay Manjrekar, ML Jaisimha, Gundappa Vishwanath and Mohammed Azharuddin. A soulmate from outside India would be Lawrence Rowe, who had the same vulnerability, the same fluidity, the same effortlessness. And the same appetite for big scores. Among contemporaries, Sri Lanka's Mahela Jayawardene is a similar visual treat at the crease. But it is a dying breed, as efficiency replaces style and effectiveness is rated above sheer magic.
To a generation brought up to believe that the product is more important than the process, Laxman might have been an anachronism but for one crucial quality: Laxman had substance to go with the style. He won matches for India, especially late in his career, when he made batting with nine, ten and jack into an art form. His batting, far from causing junior partners to give up the ghost in despair at being unable to match it, actually gave them the heart to carry on. Laxman gave them confidence, and they responded by concentrating harder.
As a catcher at slip, Laxman was only a whit behind Dravid, his friend and chatting partner in that cordon. Only Dravid, with his world record 210, has caught more. These two, along with Tendulkar, must take some of the credit for the success of the Indian bowling in the golden era. Fast bowlers knew that edges would be taken, spinners could experiment confident that even hard slashes would be grasped by the many soft pairs of hands.
There has been speculation for months now that Laxman might call it a day after the Hyderabad Test commencing on Thursday. That would have been a Bollywood ending - with perhaps a century on his home ground and an Indian win against New Zealand. It must have been a wrench, the decision to quit at this time. After all, he was already in the squad for the Tests. By doing the decent thing after the disastrous series in England and Australia, Laxman has given the selectors more time to try out more options before the tougher series abroad next year, even if by his own admission, he took them into confidence only on the morning of his announcement. It will not be easy to fill the shoes of players like Dravid and Laxman.
For 16 years at the highest level, Laxman personified grace in everything he did. He was incapable of an ugly stroke. He deserves his rest, his time with the family and our good wishes as he follows his final dream - to win the Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad.