Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Laxman's Top 5 Innings in test cricket

Plenty of great articles have been written and tributes have poured in from all over the world in light of VVS Laxman's retirement from international cricket. Laxman will be remembered fondly for his elegant and stylish strokeplay which is unlikely to be replicated in the near future due to the emphasis on power hitting in the twenty20 age. The truly remarkable feature of Laxman's batting however, was to play with the same stylishness and allying it with a mind of steel, that ultimately delivered India victory in lost causes, including some of their greatest comebacks. Amongst his many heroic displays, the following are what this observer considers to be Laxman's 5 best innings in test cricket.

5) 103 not out vs. Sri Lanka at Colombo
India were 1-0 down in the series after two tests, and needed a win in the last match at the P Sara Oval to square the series. Laxman had already scored a beautiful 56 in India's first innings, but saved the best for the last in a tricky chase. After a high-scoring start to the game, the pitch started to wear out and was offering tremendous grip and purchase for the spinners. Set a target of 258 against the home team, Suraj Randiv was soon spinning webs around the Indian batsmen, reducing them to the perilous position of 62 for 4.

Laxman was the ideal man for the crisis, and a 109 run partnership with Sachin Tendulkar steadied the innings. While Tendulkar played with the sole intention of surviving, Laxman's innovation and excellent use of his wrists, enabled India to accelerate the scoring rate despite the tricky conditions. Laxman's ease and stability helped an under pressure Suresh Raina play a naturally attacking game to help see India through and tie the series. Despite suffering from a severe back injury and batting with Virender Sehwag as his runner, Laxman reached his century with two delightful drives either side of the wicket against his Sri Lankan nemesis, Ajantha Mendis, delivering the final verdict in that particular duel.

4) 73 not out vs. Australia at Mohali
Laxman could have a completely different list, simply outlining his many great innings against Australia. In India's next test match after Laxman's heroics in Colombo, the stylish Hyderabadi came to the team's rescue again. Still suffering from the injury that dogged him in Sri Lanka, Laxman came out to bat at number 10 in the first innings and made only 2. Many presumed that would be it as far as Laxman's role in the match was concerned.

Once again, India had a tricky target on a wearing pitch. Chasing 216, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus had rooted out the top order, leaving India reeling at 48 for 4 at the close of play on the fourth day. The fifth morning wasn't particularly better, despite Laxman coming in at 7, India were staring down the jaws of defeat at 124 for 8. With Ishant Sharma at the other end, Laxman went on the attack, defying the match situation and the Australians were left dumbfounded by the mastery of their chief tormentor. Laxman put on 81 with Sharma, leaving India with 11 runs to win with the last wicket in hand.

With 6 runs needed, Ojha almost got himself run out, earning the rarely seen wrath of the gentle Laxman. After surviving that close shave, Ojha flicked the winning runs of Mitchell Johnson to complete a miraculous victory. Laxman's contribution in a tight situation was remarkable for the fact that his unbeaten 73 was scored in 79 balls at a scintillating strike rate of 92.40.

3) 96 vs. South Africa at Durban
After suffering a humiliating defeat in the series opener at Centurion, many expected India to fare even worse on the livelier and greener pitch of Durban in the 2nd test. On a pitch that even Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers struggled on, Laxman played a true masterclass.

With India teetering at 148 for 7 in the second innings, South Africa were looking at a manageable chase of around 250. Laxman had a different lower order batting ally this time around, as Zaheer Khan stood firm at one end and the two put on 70 crucial runs together, extending the lead beyond 300 and taking the game away from South Africa.

Laxman's 96 was full of flowing strokes and the usual elegance, and he was extremely unfortunate to miss out on a century. To illustrate his mastery of the difficult conditions, the next highest score for India in the test match, was Laxman's first innings score of 38. Another colossal match-winning display when India were on the ropes and down for the count.

2) 148 vs. Australia at Adelaide
One of the rare occasions where Laxman's brilliance played second fiddle to another batsman. It was perhaps fitting that the batsman was his best friend, Rahul Dravid. After Australia put on an imposing total of 556, punctuated by the brilliance of a Ricky Ponting double century, India were in deep trouble in their first innings, when Sehwag, Tendulkar and captain Sourav Ganguly fell in quick succession to leave India at 85 for 4. Victory was the farthest things from mind, avoiding the follow on in itself seemingly an insurmountable challenge.

The two great middle-order stalwarts had other ideas. Laxman scored a brilliant 148, and when he was dismissed caught behind of Andy Bichel, he had put on a morale-sapping partnership of 303 with Dravid that changed the complexion of the game. Dravid went on to score a fantastic 233, and the pair's heroics seemed to inspire India's bowlers, as they bowled out Australia for 196, setting up a target of 233. Dravid and Laxman put on another 51 together in the second innings, leading India to victory on their best ever tour down under.

1) 281 vs. Australia at Kolkata
Quite possibly the greatest innings ever played in test cricket. Steve Waugh's Australian team was the dominant force in the game by a fair distance. They had won 15 tests in a row when they toured India, and then extended the sequence further by crushing India in the opening test in Mumbai.

Things weren't looking much better for India at Eden Gardens. After Australia posted a formidable 445 in the first innings, India caved in easily getting bowled out for 171. The only saving grace was Laxman's fluid 59 off 83 deliveries that consisted of 12 beautiful boundaries.

Following on, captain Sourav Ganguly decided it would be a good idea to send Laxman in at the fall of the first wicket, as he was the only batsman who looked capable of playing an Australian attack featuring the genius of McGrath and Warne, with Gillespie and Kasprowicz providing more than adequate back-up.

The rest as they say, is history. Laxman played a flawless innings, driving on both sides, pulling handsomely and dominating Warne with his wrists enabling him to direct the leg spin to all sides of the wicket. When Ganguly got out for 48, India were still 42 runs from avoiding an innings defeat. Many at Eden Gardens were just praying that India set Australia a mediocre target, so the home team would be spared the indignity of a huge defeat.

What followed was absolutely remarkable, as Laxman and Dravid entered the annals of cricketing history. The pair batted out the whole 4th day without even offering a whiff of a chance to the Australians, and ultimately put on 376 quality runs together. From the position of odds on favourites, Australia were simply left clueless facing an onslaught that combined style with steel. India ended up winning by 171 runs, an era defining victory that laid the foundations for India's best decade of test cricket home and abroad under the leadership axis of Ganguly and Dravid.

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