VVS Laxman’s batting is known for its immaculate silken timing. It was no surprise then, that he walked in to Paradise Biryani Pointe, the venue for a meet-and-greet in East Windsor, NJ where DVD highlights of the epic 2001 India-Australia test series was playing on screen and it was Laxman being interviewed after playing arguably the greatest test innings by an Indian and one of the greatest innings of modern day test cricket.
After the initial hubbub of the presence of a famous Indian cricketer when a lot of those assembled there were keen to get their picture taken alongside Laxman or just shake his hands, had subsided, the evening unfolded into quite a neat experience. There were USA U-15 players there and also other kids who are just started to take up cricket through the DreamCricket Academy. It must have been a remarkable experience for these young impressionable minds to get a first hand look of what is possible, if they put in the hard work that is required.
There was Q&A session where Laxman answered a wide range of questions from adults and kids alike and handled with the calmness he personifies on the field. There were queries about his choice to become a cricketer coming from a family of doctors, the amount of training he did as a teenager, handling the “intrusive” Indian media, IPL, calls for his retirement, Indian team’s performance in the two recent overseas tours to England and Australia, the mental side of cricket etc.
He answered the questions from the young US players (and their parents) very politely and earnestly, emphasizing that the parents need to provide all the support to their children that they can to pursue their dream of playing cricket, and be supportive of their decision to choose cricket as a career. His message for the youngsters present there was to play cricket for the love of it and not whether you are going to be able to make a career out of it. He explained to the kids that becoming an international cricketer, in addition to talent, skills and hard work, requires a lot of sacrifices from the player, and their parents. “When I was a 18 year old, I wanted to hang out with my friends but I needed to forego that to focus on my training, and so I did.”
[Do read Stephen Rooke’s account of meeting Vivek Narayan, an impressive USA U-15 player, who is mature beyond his years.]
There were no airs about Laxman. Anybody that was there was free to walk up to him and engage him a conversation. He signed plenty of autographs and obliged everyone for photographs that they will treasure.
Some interesting questions & responses:
- Who was the toughest bowler you’ve ever faced? Wasim Akram.
- Who was the toughest spinner? Muttiah Muralitharan.
- Besides 281, which one would you consider your favorite test innings? I don’t have personal favorites. Whichever innings that contribute to team wins or helps us save the game, I’ll always remember them more.
- What was the effect of the 167 in Sydney? It allowed me to bat with a bit more freedom and in an aggressive manner. More than a personal gain, I think we (Rahul, Sourav et al) saw how the Australians approached test cricket and how they prepared. In terms of what we learned, that 1999-00 tour was invaluable for what we went to accomplish later in our career.
- Any thoughts on the 281? What I remember most from the match while playing with Rahul was that the Australians did not expect that sort of fight back and panicked. We saw that they had lost hope. But in the end, even though they lost the match, they were also happy to be part of something that was historic.
- What about some of the “partying” culture within the new generation of Indian players? Whether someone parties or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they need to perform on the field. Some people, like me, relax with music where as others read books, or go to movies, or party or go to clubs. As long as their on field performance is not affected, who cares really.
- What about the kind of pressure that Indian players feel from their own media? Growing up in India where you are competing from a young age for everything, it becomes part of you, the ability to handle it and get through. When media makes up stories, it is disappointing but we as players don’t generally get affected by what is written about us.
- Any favorite batsman/player from the upcoming lot? Virat Kohli has already done very well in ODIs and is doing well with whatever opportunities he has got in Tests. Rohit Sharma is a brilliant talent and there is Pujara and Tiwary also. No particular favorite (when Laxman was asked again).
Personally, I had the opportunity to ask him a question (and a follow up) and Missus Couch did too! When we eventually approached him to have him sign the autograph bat and a picture, he noted, “You guys asked tough, tough questions”.
For my question, look at the comment section. Missus Couch asked him about he goes handling the mental aspect of the game, where the mano-a-mano battle between the bowler and batsman is a subset. Laxman responded with the game being mostly a mental exercise and elaborated on the important role of a “mental conditioning coach” and how it helps players to have someone to talk to, not about the technical aspects of the game but someone that can help you guide through the mental preparation required to play test cricket and can address whatever the player is feeling. He also volunteered that if he sets up a coaching academy post-retirement, that is one aspect of the game he will be paying a lot of attention to.
Soon, dinner was served. The DVD player was back in action and more Laxman batting highlights were splashed on the screen. Laxman was seated along with some of his friends and digging in to delicious Hyderabadi Biryani. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Laxman occasionally nodding his head in approval to some of the brilliant shots he had pulled off over the years. Another round of handshakes and pleasantries, and he was gone – the exit as unassuming as the entry.