V.V.S. Laxman and Ashwell Prince produced the two outstanding batting performances in the Wanderers Test. Laxman got 28 and 73 (a total of a 101 runs) while Prince’s match aggregate was 121, with 24 in the first innings and 97 in the second. They’re unlike batsmen — Prince is a battling journeyman while Laxman’s a diffident genius — but they have some things in common. Each bats at number five for his country’s test match side, and neither figures in India and South Africa’s ODI squads. Both of them, despite respectable track records, seem to be chronically on trial.
Prince has had to cope with insinuations that he was in the South African team because of the colour of his skin, this despite having come out against sporting quotas, quite apart from the fact that he averages nearly 40 in a South African team not known for its batting depth. And Laxman is always one series away from the axe. After the one-day debacle in South Africa, when Ganguly and Laxman and Zaheer were recalled, I asked one of Greg Chappell’s journalist partisans if this didn’t represent a rejection of Chappell’s New Model Army. Not at all, he said, Laxman was always in the frame for test matches. And besides, he argued, the coach and the captain work with the teams the selectors give them.
This is disingenuous. In the last home series against England, Laxman scored a duck in the first innings of the first test. Then, when India decided to go for the target England had set them, Laxman was sent in after Harbhajan Singh because the team management figured that Harbhajan was likelier to get them quick runs. After this vote of confidence (Laxman was 0 not out when the match ended), he was dropped for the second and third tests in Mohali and Mumbai. Chappell and Dravid decided to go in with five batsmen, and because Yuvraj had scored one of his trademark centuries-in-a-losing-cause in the previous series against Pakistan in Karachi, he was chosen over Laxman.
That we lost the third test in Mumbai ignominiously isn’t as relevant to my argument as the fact that, given the choice, Chappell and Dravid chose Yuvraj over Laxman. Chappell and Dravid are great test batsmen and yet they chose Yuvraj Singh, an excellent one-day cricketer but a test batsman of modest gifts, over Laxman, a man who has played some of India’s greatest test match innings in recent times. Dravid should know: he played glorious second fiddle to him in Calcutta while Laxman made his magnificent 281. So what was behind this bizarre decision' More generally, why does Laxman seem to hover at the margins of a team when he should unequivocally be part of its core' And there have been enough reports in the press to suggest that Laxman himself has felt marginalized by the present dispensation.
I think the explanation is twofold. One, Chappell’s keen on young, fit men and Laxman’s not famous as an athlete. Two, Chappell was so keen to demonstrate success in any form of the game that the players who helped him achieve victories in one-day cricket early in his tenure were rewarded with test-match places. Ironically, on Dravid and Chappell’s watch, the skills and disciplines of test cricket were deemed less important than all-round fitness and on-field effervescence. Dhoni, Yuvraj, Pathan, Raina: the new Indian team, like some German gymnasium, proclaimed the cult of muscular youth.
Which is why our win at the Wanderers is specially welcome. It was an old-fashioned test wicket that had something for the seamers, not one of those flat-bowler killers that are considered good tracks for the one-day game and which have increasingly come to dominate test cricket. Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman fought for their runs. Laxman, even as he conducted a master class on catching in the slips, reminded us that being a good fielder in test-match cricket can mean more than posturing at point. Kumble, the greatest bowler India has ever produced, who has suffered rejection not just in the one day game, but in test matches too, with Harbhajan often chosen over him in away tests, illustrated once again the stupidity of captains and coaches past and present, by taking wickets on demand. When you think of some of the bowlers India has played in the last 18 months in one-day cricket, specially the endless parade of second-rate seamers, you wonder what they had that Kumble didn’t, or conversely what the management was drinking when they pencilled in the team sheets.
I’m delighted that the South Africans killed us in the one-day matches because humiliating defeat was a necessary precondition for killing off Chappell’s fountain-of-youth fantasies. We need the youth and passion of a Sreesanth so long as these attributes are backed up by specialist playing skills.
Consider the awfulness of what might have been. If Yuvraj Singh hadn’t ruptured himself playing kho-kho or kabaddi or whatever else Chappell considers a necessary cricketing skill, he would have played the ODI series. Had we won or even drawn the ODI series, Yuvraj would have been a certainty for the tests, and had Raina managed a couple of fifties, he would have been rapidly translated into the test squad too. Ganguly wouldn’t have been recalled, nor would Zaheer, and Laxman would still have been the wallflower in the dressing room, not the vice-captain of the Indian team. Harbhajan, had he taken a handful of wickets in the ODIs, would have been preferred to Kumble and the first test at the Wanderers wouldn’t have had a happy ending.
Perhaps it’s my imagination but Greg Chappell looks remarkably like the ageing Clint Eastwood. Both of them were great performers in their youth and now, in their capacity as directors, they wear an aura of vain, withered authority. While Eastwood can direct his movies and star in them, Chappell’s problem is that he needs others to act out his scripts. In Dravid, he seemed to have found his Doppelgänger: so complete was Dravid’s conversion to Chappell’s managerial gobbledygook (“the right disciplines”, “the right areas”) that you wondered if this great player was possessed. That’s another Wanderers bonus: hopefully, the victory was, for Dravid, a kind of exorcism.
The ESPN crew did what commentary teams do best: they normalized the collapse of Chappell’s strategy with spin. Ravi Shastri, in particular, went to great lengths to reassure us that the Chappell-Ganguly confrontation had been mightily overblown and came close to suggesting that it had all been part of some robust master-plan. The Shaz/Waz stand-up act seems to have become part of Shastri’s persona. His machismo is now so over the top that it’s a constant delight. I think he’s disappointed he wasn’t cast as the new Bond and on the evidence of his Maratha warrior routine for the PH League commercial, who can blame him' But he’s still the best analyst on the ESPN team. At the end of the first day’s play, after Laxman was dismissed off the last ball bowled, I was, like your standard Indian fan, convinced that disaster was imminent. Shastri, though, insisted that the Indians had ‘gutsed’ it out, shown character and that at close of play, honours were even. And he was right. When he’s not being a starlet, he’s illuminating.