Wednesday, November 28, 2018

281 and Beyond - VVS Laxman with R. Kaushik

V.V.S.Laxman's '281 and Beyond' tells the story of how the classy batsman from Hyderabad rose to the heights he did and how he coped with it and sustained it for almost two decades. As is evident in the title, the book goes beyond the Laxman of the defining knock of 281 (those who ask what 281 better stop here). For anyone aspiring for excellence, cricket, sports or any other field, the book provides fascinating insights. But for me nothing beats the dedication of the book - he names his uncle Baba Krishna Mohan 'for recognising the talent in him' first, before his parents. As straight a bat as there ever can be.

The book starts with a goosebumpy chapter on the 281 story which we are all familiar with. But the inside story of how he felt confident enough to take on the Aussies, how he was asked to go No 3 soon after he returned to the pavilion at the end of the first innings and 274 behind, how he and Rahul kept their heads and turned the tables on the Aussies and all that followed. It ends with one line where he says all the passengers in the flight got up and clapped for the heroes and you feel exactly what they are feeling. Sports is made of stuff like that and that's one reason why anyone should play and experience that thrill. That chapter takes the book off to a flying start.

As I read the book, what stayed with me was Laxman's perseverance through so much uncertainty, his injuries and his dilemmas. His dilemmas start with the first big choice - play or study. The choice becomes tougher when you are good at both and you have to choose one. Laxman could have got his medical seat but he chose the tougher and more uncertain route which gives you an early insight into his mind. Big sacrifices, tough choices, steel you up for the hard road ahead. And then there is only one road and you have to walk it however tough it might be.

He is torn between making these hard choices because his family is full of doctors and scientists and a career in academics would seem a natural choice. But he chose to give up academics and take up cricket (which provides a really minuscule chance of success). But to back that chance one needs self-belief and gumption and he has loads of it. He also has the unwavering support of his family - his father the popular and feisty Dr. Shataram and mother Dr. Satyabhama constantly providing him full support and his uncle Baba Mohan whose faith in Laxman's abilities far exceeds Laxman's himself. It's fascinating to read how his uncle clearly made the difference in the big decisions in his life. Everyone needs an uncle like that.

Laxman's preparation, the long road to success, are great lessons for any aspiring sportsman. The road is not smooth all the way and it tested his resolve at every stage. The incidents where he hurt himself after an accident and another similar one where he had to play on with painkillers despite painful injuries show his character, his determination to make it count. It is completely champion stuff and one only needs to look at so many talented players or aspirants who sit out at the first sign of discomfort (many times owing to a formidable opposition) to know the difference between why some make it and most don't. Playing smart is not escaping when the heat is on but walking through the fire and making it to the other side. I do wish so many cricketers from Hyderabad and elsewhere realise that. Interestingly Laxman also mentioned somewhere that he wanted the world to know that Hyderabadis are not some laid back, happy go lucky bunch but as intense as anyone else. And prove he did without sacrificing an iota of his style. In Hyderabad they would probably be happy that he did not sacrifice his style - because whatever we do and however hard we may work, end of the day 'shaan mein farak nahin aana' ('we should not compromise on our style whatever happens'- loosely translated because one can never translate Hyderabadi into any language ever!)

Laxman's early days at Little Flower school and his friendship with Parth Satwalkar (another gentleman cricketer who would have been a great role model as a cricketer, but who gave it all up for a career in dentistry), his success at the Under 13 Nutrine Cup in Vijayawada, junior levels, his journey of self-discovery are full of names of people we played with. The story of how his uncle took him along for his early coaching at John Manoj's coaching camp and how he got homesick after a couple of days is very endearing. His uncle really has been a special angel in Laxman's life - the way he made these decisions to join John's coaching academy, to give up medicine - almost like an angel that God sent. And another lovely story is how John lets him bat when Arshad Ayub was looking for players for Ensconce, knowing that a break into the elite A1 division would give Laxman a much better exposure. Now John could have well held such a quality batsman back for his own team EMCC but he wanted to give the young boy a chance. Arshad could see the young talent and picked him instantly.

I remember playing a match for MCC against Ensconce those days and young Laxman's bat was so broad that I found it difficult to get past it. I was well past my prime and was looking at applying management principles more than anything else to the game. But it was impressive - like a solid wall for one so young. With most batsmen you sense a chance, a chink. Rarely you find those batsmen who defeat the purpose of bowling even before you bowl with their compact batting - Laxman was one such. Sanjay Manjrekar was another one like that whom I had bowled to. Arshad, who had already played Test cricket by then, played a key role by asking Laxman to set his goal high by giving him the example of Sachin. I do wish more and more players - especially Azhar, Shivlal, Laxman, Arshad, Vekatapathi, Noel and others shared more such sessions, stories so it inspires more Laxmans and Azhars in Hyderabad. Somewhere a platform must be created - in Mumbai senior players still play so the stories get around. In Hyderabad, we could have these lectures too every once in a while. I was fortunate to have played years for Marredpally Cricket Club listening and imbibing what cricket was about from M.L. Jaisimha. It was better than the University education and I rue the fact that I did not ask him enough questions then.

Laxman recalls an incident with Uncle Jai when he was the Coach of the Hyderabad team and Laxman was struggling with his batting was vintage Jai uncle. He pulled Laxman out of the nets, walked him around the ground, told him that he cannot succeed if he does not enjoy the game and asks him to bat out in the nets just enjoying hitting bat to ball. Laxman enjoys that session so much, the pressure of performing and of technique leaving him and enjoyment coming in that Jai uncle plays his next card. He challenges Laxman to come back undefeated the next day without worrying about the runs scored. Laxman scores a double hundred. Jai Uncle was brilliant at this - if he made casual players like us play first-class cricket with his little insights and provocations - I wonder what someone with Laxman's drive and appetite would have done with the kind of exposure we got. How much more he would have enjoyed his cricket and through that how much more successful he would have been.

A peek into how Indian cricket evolved with the onset of various foreign coaches from John Wright with whom Laxman shared a good relationship and Greg Chappell whose stint with Indian cricket was a disaster makes for interesting reading. Laxman's account of Chappell's methods show Greg in poor light (and justifiably so) and the damage done was substantial. Once again, one has to remember that Greg was brought in on Ganguly's word (with all good intent). But the absence of process in such critical decisions makes it all the more a case study because everyone got affected and so did Indian cricket. Laxman's account is damning. Till date, these unilateral decisions continue in such a huge organisation which should now be putting all its efforts into aiming for more and more transparency.

The road to No 1 is covered in detail with an account of all the series and games. And with it Laxman's ups and downs, his struggle with opening and his decision not to open again and establish himself in the middle order, his gaining confidence as a player and blooming into full potential took me back on a nostalgic journey. I remember watching many games of his but so understated was his celebration after his achievement that it was only after reading the book that I realised how many games he had finished on his own for India in the company of tailenders, how many crucial knocks he had played that helped India win. Absolutely classy stuff and the comparison that Gary Kirsten makes between him and Michael Bevan is so apt. Any other player from Mumbai who had achieved half of what Laxman did in terms of helping the team win would have had many more titles than just a 'Very Very Special'. This is stuff that needs steel in your nerves.

The insights into players we know so well from the screen and their persona in the dressing room is always a welcome one - Sachin crying after losing games, Sehwag's approach to the game, Dravid's resolute commitment, Kumble's intense competitiveness, Ganguly's fearless approach, Dhoni's grounded one, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Zaheer, Kohli..their character shows up through their actions. His story of working in a fuel station when in the UK was interesting - once again shows how much he put into the game. His method of preparation, what he learned from Azhar about maximising the practice session, from Venkatapathi about the importance of making your own preparation are ones that young cricketers could pick up from. There is a chapter on Laughter and Loneliness, and he talks about how one deals with it on long tours. It is lonely up there and one can feel very insecure.

Towards the end he talks about his dream of bringing back the Ranji Trophy for Hyderabad which was one of his unfulfilled dreams just as perhaps not being part of a winning World Cup team must have been. But he was part of the team that changed the way the world looked at India's cricket and saw India win two World Titles and perhaps something as big - the No 1 ranking which was achieved over several years.

It is heartening to see how his entire family comes together as one unit be it at his retirement or at the launch of the book. I love the bond the father and son share, the mother and son as well. Sailaja comes across as a grounded, secure person and one can see how well their partnership works too. The work they are doing with their charity on child education is very interesting and much needed.

My review can go on and on and there is enough stuff to go on about. The book is as honest as it can get and very Laxman like - he does not dwell too much on the negative or the controversial (which serves no purpose anyway except create some unnecessary drama) and deals with all issues with a straight bat. There is an honest attempt to share the process of preparation, to aid players prepare better, for life at the highest level which to me is the best part of the book.

Laxman has always been a generous, straightforward, polite and helpful person. When I was writing 'The Men Within' in 2006 perhaps, I gave him a copy of the manuscript to read and he agreed to despite his busy schedule then. He came to the launch of 'The Men Within' without any hangups about being the Chief Guest or not and enjoyed himself as any other normal person. This was in 2007 when he was at the peak of his career. Subsequently, we worked together for a while when I was Chairman of Selectors and he was the captain of the Hyderabad Ranji team and we did the best we could to achieve what was best for Hyderabad cricket. Even in those volatile meetings, he would be composed and clear and polite. When I wrote '50 Not Out' I asked him to be my Chief Guest to launch the book in Hyderabad and he took time out and he did - and spoke so well. When I went last year to gift him a copy of 'This Way Is Easier Dad' my last book, he asked Sailaja to take a picture of ours, holding the book, and tweeted about it without me asking for it. What more need one say?
Signed copy!
Kaushik has done a wonderful job - like Harsha Bhogle said at the launch in Hyderabad 'it sounds just like VVS'. Putting it together, organising it and bringing out the essence of the person and his character through his actions and thoughts, good and bad, is no mean task. Kaushik achieved that delicate balance and it must have taken a lot out of him. He deserves a pat on his back for investing his all into the book. A glimpse into the kind of a person Kaushik is. For someone who has been a top sports journalist for several years and then Chief Editor of Wisden India, he chanced upon a copy of my book '50 Not Out' (which incidentally VVS launched in Hyderabad!) on the desk of Sidhanta Patnaik (who incidentally has written a book about Women's cricket in India that's coming up shortly) and took it, and wrote the best review the book ever got. He fully 'got' what I had attempted in that book. We did not know each other then but after that, we made contact, and he took me to the Press Club in Bangalore. and we have been in touch ever since. I  am sure there are many more books in him and have no doubt he will be very successful at that.

One for the shelf. more from it when I read it again - this time purely from a preparation angle. 

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