The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots.
In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.
Thus begins Eduardo Galeano’s 1995 classic Soccer in Sun and Shadow, a passage that raises visions of a pained Galeano sitting in a soulless soccer stadium in Montevideo, searching desperately for a player who is approaching the game “without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee”.
I wish Galaeno had seen VVS, a cricketer capable – with nothing more than a delicate swish – of twisting the hard-as-nails enterprise of cricket into a joyous pastime; of transporting middle-aged men from their workplace to their backyard; of making us sit up in our seats alive with possibility.
VVS Laxman has retired from international cricket. He didn’t give us much notice, didn’t warn us in advance. If one were to believe him – and why, oh why, would you ever do anything else? – he toyed with the idea for a few days before making up his mind on Saturday morning. I like the idea of Laxman toying with thoughts. I like the idea of Laxman toying with anything. Because Laxman was the ultimate toy artist, like that boy next door – yes, the same devout, shy boy next door – who took your Hotwheels car set and played with them like you had never thought of before.
Laxman reminded me of that boy. Several writers have tried to capture the magic of Kolkata ’01. Is it even possible to bring out the essence of that monumental 281? The late Peter Roebuck got close. “He [Laxman] rose to the occasion like a backbencher suddenly standing in an important debate and producing a speech so full of gravitas that the government itself took notice.”
Laxman was that backbencher. He was also the nicest backbencher. The word ‘nice’ is so overused that it’s lost its meaning. But VVS was nice, uber-nice, so nice that for a long time in his career he found it hard to refuse interviews. Rarely have I seen anyone so anguished at having to say the word ‘no’. He was apologetic when he couldn’t go the extra yard to help. He was so pliant that it often worked against him – like in his early days when he was shunted up and down the batting order.
I once asked him whether all this niceness had worked against him. He considered the question. Then he spoke about how he couldn’t think of behaving in any other way. “That’s the way I’ve been brought up,” he said. “I have to be nice to people not because I have to be nice, but because that’s the way I am … It’s not wrong to be a nice guy, right?”
Read that last bit again. Understand how Laxman could cross all conceivable boundaries of niceness. “It’s not wrong to be a nice guy, right?”
Laxman is often branded as a stylist but that discounts his extraordinary versatility. He could scrap on a treacherous pitch (think Ahmedabad ’96 on his debut), eke out runs with the tail (think Perth ’08, Mohali ’10) and bat time. He was outstanding against raw pace – not so much swing and seam but against pace he was king – and arguably the best Indian batsman against spin (a colossus among the giants).
And he won matches. Many, many matches. As long as Laxman was at the crease, India were in the game. In some ways he was cricket’s version of Roger Federer. “What’s historically special about him isn’t his elegance,” as Steve Tignor said of Federer, “but the way he has made elegance work.”
Which brings me to the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008. India had been pummeled in Melbourne, their batsmen had been suffocated with inside-out fields. Australia knew that India’s batsmen were at their most vulnerable when boundaries were not easy to come by. They understood that bowling tight lines and setting imaginative fields would thwart this great batting line-up.
Australia had recovered from 134 for 6 to 463. Jaffer was out for a 25-ball 3. Dravid was struggling. Like epic struggling. The series was slipping away. There were shackles everywhere. Until then, India’s batsmen had only poked and prodded. You sensed that even the crowd wished for a contest.
In walked Laxman. And then came the jailbreak. Cover-drive after exquisite cover-drive reeled off his bat. There was a remarkable freshness to those strokes. I had likened them to counting a wad of brand new currency notes. Swish, swish, swish. In less than half an hour, he had changed the mood. You literally heard the gasps. Crunch, gasp, crunch, gasp. A blind man sitting in the stands could have felt the magnitude of that Laxman innings. It was uplifting. You felt great about the world again.
And therein lay Laxman’s genius. He was like those fairies in tales, divine beings that would grant you wishes. You could ask for something you had been wishing for a long time, something you thought you would never see on a cricket field. And he would make it happen. Not once, not twice but over and over again. He heard your inner voice. And he responded with a magical touch.
Don McLean first sang American Pie three years before Laxman was born. But he understood people like VVS who leave an indelible mark.
A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
I thought of that song yesterday. And I also thought of the lines that end the first stanza: ‘But something touched me deep inside. The day the music died.’
Because we all know that on Saturday, the music kinda died.