If Rahul Dravid was the soundest and most dependable batsman of his generation, how does one describe V.V.S. Laxman? A writer’s first instinct would be to throw one’s hands up, faced with this array of contradictions in elegant human shape. Even the great Steve Waugh, whose Australians had to suffer some of Laxman’s greatest batting feats, was baffled. In a piece I had commissioned him to write some years ago, Waugh admitted: “We could never understand how he could be Cinderella against us and turn into a pumpkin versus the rest of the world… To watch him in top gear was to witness a genius at work, sculpting shots with a blade and wrist that defied textbooks.” Let us leave it at that.
The two men’s Test careers were almost exactly contemporaneous. Laxman made his debut for India exactly five months and three Tests after Dravid, in 1996, and both played their last Test at Adelaide in January 2012. Over 86 innings, in partnership, they scored 4,065 runs, including, of course, that most glorious of joint ventures, 376 after following on at the Eden Gardens a warm spring day in 2001. But they were yin and yang—Dravid the Industrious, possessed of incredible powers of concentration, always aware where his off-stump was; Laxman the Swashbuckler, thriving off challenges and prone to boredom, able to near-magically send off the ball, regardless of where it had pitched, to wherever he felt like.
Both were classical batsmen in the finest tradition of cricket, but if one was Bach, with his perfect musical architecture, the other was Mozart, delightful whimsy just a note—or a flick of the wrist—away.
Who will replace them? In early December, as India was surrendering meekly to England in Kolkata, several spectators came up to Dravid, who was there as a commentator, and asked him to bat for India again. If Laxman had been around, he would surely have been requested too.
Of course, other men will come. Men who, like Dravid, will over and over again make sure that the job gets done if it is at all possible; even men like Laxman who will once in a while make the impossible a reality. There will be batsmen like Dravid who will sometimes disappoint simply because they set their bar so high and make us so demanding, and some like Laxman who will enrage us with the carelessness that makes them fail and the carefreeness which enables them to do what others can’t.
It is possible, though unlikely, given the changing structure and emphases of the game, that another Indian cricketer will be even more dependable and dedicated than Dravid. It is even possible that some day an Indian batsman will play an innings more magnificent than Laxman’s 281. But it is impossible, at least for me, to believe that another two men will share the stage for 16 years, representing India as such thorough gentlemen, with such dignity and courtesy.
For, these two men, different in so many ways from each other, embodied the same rare values. They never believed in strutting aggression, intimidating umpires, sledging—they never even grew coarse stubbles to prove that they are tough sons of guns. They knew that there were better ways to earn respect and fear, and win games. At no point did they let sportsman spirit degenerate into gamesmanship. They let their skills with the bat do all that needed to be done.
The last two decades have seen the quality of grace increasingly absent from the cricket field. Dravid will certainly be remembered as one of the greatest batsmen of all time. That honour will not be bestowed on Laxman, though he will have his place as a genius who rarely tried hard enough. But both will live on as two of the last exemplars of a graciousness of spirit that imbued their game and their behaviour on and off the field. One cannot think of better role models for young Indian cricketers.
Judging the right time to hang up one’s boots is not a quality that comes easily to Indian sportsmen. How many of our great cricketers of the last 40 years have walked away with their dignity intact, and the public asking for more? There may be others, but I can think of only three—Gavaskar, Ganguly and Kumble. Dravid retired as a hero; in fact, the timing of his announcement seemed to make him an even greater cricketer. Laxman read the signals from the worthies running our cricketing establishment late. But he showed no rancour, and his exit was simple and graceful. Both men are already being missed, but in the long term, we shall miss them for something more important than their brilliance with the bat. We will miss them for the values they never lost sight of.