In an exclusive extract from his autobiography 281 and Beyond, VVS Laxman recalls India’s 2010/11 tour of South Africa which featured a still-masterful 37-year-old Sachin Tendulkar and Dale Steyn in his pomp.
The Tests against New Zealand were followed by a five-match ODI series, but the BCCI rested a host of limited-overs regulars so that we could travel to South Africa to practise at Gary Kirstin’s academy in Cape Town. In the past, we had taken time to hit our straps, so the idea was to get used to the conditions in South Africa by the time of the first Test in Centurion.
In the gap between the Nagpur Test and our departure to South Africa, I went to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) for continued strengthening of my back. To my dismay, the spasms returned again, and I had to put off my travel to Cape Town while the rest of the boys went ahead.
I had been working hard on countering the craft of Dale Steyn, so I probably batted a little more than I should have, which led to the spasms. After plenty of attention from Ashish Kaushik, the new physio at the NCA, I flew out to South Africa four days behind schedule and linked up with the guys in Cape Town, where I batted indoors a lot with Gary and Paul Close, the national team physio, keeping a close watch.
Centurion was a complete disaster. We lost Zak to injury the day before the match and had to bat in unimaginably challenging conditions. We were skittled for 136. Jacques Kallis replied with a classy 201 not out, his first Test double hundred, to stretch South Africa’s lead to 474, and a massive defeat loomed.
I was bowled for seven in the first innings by a beautiful out-swinger from Steyn, and in the second innings was caught for eight playing an extravagant drive that I edged to gully. But Sachin and MS Dhoni battled hard to delay the inevitable.
Batting with supreme authority, Sachin made an astonishing 50th Test century. He was 37 years old and had been playing for the country for 21 years, and yet the desire remained undiminished. It was both exhilarating and humbling. After all these years, and despite the presence of other quality batsmen, we continued to depend heavily on his heroics. I didn’t think it was fair that he alone should carry the burden even at this late stage of his career.
The team was scheduled to spend a couple of days in Sun City, but wary of potential damage to the back from the travel, I opted to stay back in Johannesburg. Taking a cue from me, Sachin, Viru (Virender Sehwag), Zak (Zaheer Khan), Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh) and a couple of others skipped Sun City too. Our friend in Johannesburg, Kiran, organised nets for us and we had a fruitful couple of days. I remember whining to Zak, ‘Why should Sachin alone have to get runs all the time? Why can’t I contribute more to the team?’
When we arrived at Kingsmead for the second Test in Durban, with Zak now available for selection, the pitch evoked mixed emotions. While we had our most potent bowling attack to choose from, the conditions were entirely against the batsmen. We recognised that this was our best opportunity to square the series, provided the batsmen knuckled down and ground it out. South Africa were a strong outfit, but the Centurion blowout wasn’t a true reflection of our abilities.
Graeme Smith stuck us in and Steyn was virtually unplayable on an overcast morning, with the ball darting around off the pitch. My determination to make a meaningful score manifested itself in a positive approach, and the ball flew off my bat as I raced into the thirties in quick time, inclusive of a pulled six off Steyn. I remember that stroke like it was yesterday. After all, I only have five sixes in Test cricket.
I was just beginning to feel comfortable when I pulled Steyn again, from outside off, wide of mid-on. Lonwabo Tsotsobe, the big fast bowler, bounded to his right and put in a dive to snaffle the ball inches from the turf. I was stunned, I couldn’t believe my luck. Once again a freak dismissal had packed me off when I was comfortably set on a demanding track with a bit of grip and lateral movement, as well as help for the spinners.
We scrambled to 205, probably par for the course, but a refreshed Zak and Bhajji turned it on to open up a 74-run lead. Zak bowled with the fire befitting his status as the leader of the pack and showed how much we had missed him in Centurion, but he wasn’t done yet. With Morkel in the lead role, South Africa worked through our batting, and we were 148-7 when Zak strode out, all purpose. Our lead was a handy 222 but definitely not decisive. Zak kept me company during a stand of 70, while I played positively. Given the conditions and the batting at our disposal, I realised there was no point pottering around.
Zak and Ishant fell in quick succession and I was in the 90s at the fall of the ninth wicket. I had faith in Sreesanth, but I also wanted a hundred. When I spotted a short, wide ball from Steyn, my eyes lit up and I went for a full-blooded cut. All I managed was a nick that nestled safely in Mark Boucher’s gloves.
Another hundred missed, but I would have taken that 96 any day. It came on a demanding track against a top-class attack, and no other batsman from either side had touched even 40. More importantly, it boosted our lead to 302. Zak and Sreesanth were brilliant in the second innings, the latter producing a snorter to account for Kallis and make possible one of the memorable photographs of the tour—the batsman airborne, his head arched back, the bat thrust in front of his face in self-defence.
The 87-run win helped us square the series, with the decider to follow in Cape Town. For the fourth time in five months and seven Tests, I had delivered when we had our backs to the wall. For the third time, I had played a key part in our victory.
The man of the match award was particularly fulfilling. As I cradled the trophy in my hands, Zak whispered, ‘Happy now?’ My back survived the thumps from my friends, and Gary couldn’t stop smiling. He had labelled me Mr Comeback Man. He was a big fan of Michael Bevan, the Australian batsman who could pull off ODI victories from out of nowhere, a miracle worker if there was one. As we savoured our success at Kingsmead, Gary told me, ‘You are the Michael Bevan of Test cricket.’
Excerpted from 281 and Beyond by VVS Laxman, published by Westland Sport.
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