Something about Australia always brought the best out of VVS Laxman. The stylist from Hyderabad announced his arrival as an international batsman of great pedigree with his first Test century, a stirring 167, in Sydney in early 2000, a knock that was to prove the first turning point in a wonderful career. A little over a year later, he played inarguably the greatest Test innings by an Indian. His 281 in Kolkata changed the course of not just his career, but also the mindset of the Indian team.
In this interview with Wisden India, Laxman reflects on his battle with the Aussies, speaking at length on those two career-changing knocks, and of his early skirmishes with Australia, dating back to Under-19 days. Excerpts:
Your overwhelming success against Australia has been discussed at length, but is there any particular reason why you had such great results against them?
It's extremely difficult to pinpoint one reason why you have so much success against a particular opposition, but I have a long history with Australia and I am sure that has something to do with it. Australia always play to win and they are so supremely focussed and hard-nosed that you have to constantly be on your toes. If you are at less than your best, you will be found out. That's something that has always appealed to me. I relished going to battle knowing that I had to be on top of my game. Australia also attack you no matter what the situation. As a batsman, that suited my game because I could hit boundaries and score quickly.
I first ran into the Australians in 1994 during the Under-19 series. They had a strong team, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Matthew Nicholson, Andrew Symonds and Mike Hussey, among others. There was a warm-up game in Hyderabad, which we lost by an innings. I hadn't faced such pace, it was my first exposure to such quality pace bowling. But I practised with wet tennis balls and plastic balls between the warm-up game and the 'Tests', and that played a big part in my having a very good 'Test' series.
My breakthrough into the Indian squad was during the one-off Test against Australia in 1996, and even though I didn’t figure in the XI, it was a great feeling to watch my heroes, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh and Glenn McGrath, from close quarters. The first time I played against Australia was in 1998 when I made 95 at the Eden Gardens as an opener, and played Shane Warne for the first time, but it was my first tour of Australia that was the turning point of my career.
Talk us through that Sydney game, and your mindset when you went in to bat in the second innings.
I always wanted to score a hundred in Australia because I have always enjoyed watching cricket from there. I also loved the way Australia played their cricket. Coming into Sydney, I had had two bad Test matches in terms of runs scored. I felt I was batting well, both in the nets and in the matches, but I didn't have any scores to talk about. I thought it was my last opportunity to make an impression in Australia because I was not in the Indian team for the triangular series to follow. I had not got too many runs in the first innings, so in effect the second innings was my last chance. Walking in to bat, I told myself that I should just play my natural game and not think too much about the result. I played to the merit of the ball, I started timing the ball well and because of the formidable position that Australia were in, they had attacking fields all the way through. I used the pace of the ball and found the gaps, the boundaries came and I started to score quickly. But what really gave me satisfaction was that I was able to play an innings of that nature against quality opposition on a helpful track and in a difficult situation. It reiterated to me the importance of carrying a positive approach to the middle.
And how did that change in mindset come about?
Usually in a cricketer's career, there comes a point when everything you plan works your way. I was practising and training hard, but not able to convert my efforts into performances. Going into that second innings in Sydney, I told myself that I must not allow myself to think about the result, but instead concentrate on the process. I was mindful it was my last innings in Australia. And as the innings progressed, I went into a zone where I was just reacting to the ball and not thinking what happened before or what will happen later. In sporting terms, people talk about being in the 'zone'. That was the first time I experienced the feeling of being in the 'zone'.
Have you been in the 'zone' since? And would you term that 167 the first significant moment of your international career?
The experience of one good innings can do wonders to your mindset, and once you have been in the 'zone', you can get there repeatedly. You know you have done well once, you understand why that innings happened. You analyse what your preparation was, what your mindset was, what your approach was. You go back to that same preparation physically and mentally as often as possible. As for that knock, as much as the runs I made, it was the manner in which I made them that gave me great satisfaction and confidence. That 167 has to be the defining knock; it convinced me that I could play the best in the business, and that I could do it successfully in all conditions. It was also my first Test hundred. As a batsman, getting to your first Test hundred is extremely important. It gave me the confidence and the belief that I belonged at the highest level.
Then, of course, came that sensational 281.
That entire Test match is still so fresh in my memory. I was last man out in the first innings after having scored a half-century, and I can say now without fear of being fined that it was a bad decision too! But I suppose the manner in which I played in the first innings must have prompted John Wright to tell Sourav [Ganguly] that I must bat at No. 3 in the second innings. When I came back to the dressing room and was about to take my pads off, John came up to me and said 'Don't take your pads off, you will bat No. 3 in the second innings'. I was very surprised, Rahul [Dravid] was established at No. 3 and he was also the vice-captain – but I was also very happy because one-drop was my favoured slot in the batting order.
I didn't even remove my pads, I just sat outside and watched what was going on. But while sitting outside and then when I went in to bat, I kept telling myself that I must start from zero, that what I had scored in the first innings was history. I was conscious and mindful that I needed to start afresh, and settle down. Luckily, SS Das and Sadagoppan Ramesh gave us a good start, putting on more than 50. That waiting period was also helpful, as it gave me a chance to think about how I was going to bat. Once I went in, I didn’t play shots straightaway. I took my time assessing the conditions and the bowling, but once I got 'in', the strokes just flowed.
Did you ever feel the pressure of having to justify the promotion to No. 3?
To be honest, that thought never crossed my mind at any stage. In fact, the only thing on my mind was to play for as long as possible. I told myself that I must not think about the end result and the score I would make. I was coming off a very good domestic season. I had had plenty of big scores, one triple-hundred and a couple of double-hundreds in first-class cricket. I wanted to use that experience and follow the same principles, not to think about the runs but occupy the crease and play for time, in international cricket. The situation in Kolkata demanded that I do so. We were in a very difficult position, which demanded that someone play a long knock, not only bat time, but also score big.
And then you and Rahul, at No. 6, had that great partnership. Considering you had swapped positions, what was your chemistry like during that association?
Not once did Rahul show any displeasure. When he walked in, he didn't show that he was unhappy to be batting at No. 6. I knew Rahul's nature, and I knew that he would do anything for the sake of the team. We decided to keep concentrating on one over at a time to start with, and then gradually the focus became one hour at a time. We told ourselves that we must not think about the end result or our individual performances.
We gelled well; we have always done so. We knew each other's games; we knew our strengths and weaknesses. We knew we were different kinds of players. We didn't talk too much out in the middle. Yes, on the few occasions when one of us lost concentration, the other would come down quickly with a word of caution but otherwise, most of our conversations between overs were: 'One more over, buddy' or 'One more over, mate'.
So when did you realise that you were on to something special?
By the end of the third day, when I had got my hundred, I was very pleased from a personal point of view. But from the team point of view, we were not satisfied till tea on the fourth day. I was always aware that though I had got a hundred, we were still behind in the game and Australia, being aggressive by nature, would attempt to scale down any reasonable target. It was only by tea on the fourth day that we felt we had saved the game. It was a great feeling when I went past 236, then the highest score by an Indian. After all, that record was in Sunil Gavaskar's name, and he is one of the most respected cricketers not only in India but also in world cricket. He had made those runs against a very good West Indian attack. It felt good, but that's all, because I was not thinking about milestones. I have never ever throughout my career thought about milestones. Had it been the case, I would have tried to bat on and get 300 the following day. I have always emphasised that the team comes ahead of personal aspirations.
The next day (the fifth), Australia bowled negative lines but I had to try and manufacture some shots so that we could score quickly, declare and give our bowlers the opportunity to try and win the game for us. That 281 was special, but more so because it came in a winning performance. That gave me more satisfaction. I don't think I would have felt the same way had we lost the match or even just drawn it.
That knock gave me the confidence that what I was doing in domestic cricket, I could do at the international level as well. Equally important, it changed our mindset as a team. It instilled in us the belief that we must never give up. If 167 changed the way I viewed cricket, 281 altered the cricket world's perception of India. To have played my part in that process, and to have scored consistently heavily against the best bowling attack of my time, against the best team of that era, is a memory I will cherish forever. During my career, the team was to be in such situations many times later, including in Adelaide in 2003-04. We remembered what happened in Kolkata, and the rest, as they say, is history.