Addressing the Laxman question
When should a sportsperson retire? This question was debated fiercely during and after India's disastrous tour of Australia, which ended in a 4-0 whitewash to extend India's overseas losing streak to eight consecutive matches - their worst period in over 40 years.
Once Rahul Dravid called time on an outstanding career the noise dimmed, but in a few weeks time it will raise its head again. New Zealand are due to arrive for two Tests, and there will be plenty of speculation as to the make-up of India's squad now that Rahul Dravid has retired. But the name that will perhaps draw the most interest - and criticism, either way the dice falls - is that of the man whose No. 6 spot in India's Test batting line-up has been mulled over countless times, VVS Laxman.
One of the most gratifying aspects of watching India play Test cricket over the past decade was to witness Laxman in full flow - either on the offensive in rubber-wristed wizardry or fighting to save a Test match, his back to the wall. I cannot count the times I have had time on my hands and spent much of it watching Laxman highlights on YouTube, often to marvel at one of my favorite batsman but equally in trying to rewind to a time when there was a lot more to feel better about when watching India play.
To have watched Laxman bat is to have savored the sight of his sinewy frame collect deliveries from a yard outside off stump and caress them - it wasn't a whip, for that is too strong a word for such a subtle batsman - through midwicket. Supple of wrist and twinkle-toed, Laxman was an artist who made batting look easy - like Mark Waugh - and who did it all with a niceness that endeared him to you.
His duel with Shane Warne in 2001 was engaging not only for its audacity - India forced to follow-on in Kolkata, you know the stage - but for the simplicity with which Laxman took apart the most feared spinner of the modern era. He was hitting Warne, pushing him onto the back foot, but he was doing it politely. It was the singular most edifying display of Indian batsmanship of the past decade.
Alas, the master of the fourth-innings chase, the man who used to stand up when India were down has not stood up for a while. When India were down in England and Australia, Laxman did not stand up. On lively pitches against quality pace attacks, he struggled to force his shots and the fact that he averaged in the early twenties across both tours was indicative of Laxman's situation. Instead of standing tall and gliding the ball into the offside, Laxman was jabbing at it; where once he would wave his brush with soft, delicate strokes like a master artisan he was now throwing it at the canvas as if in hope that a few errant drops of paint might form something of note. Laxman was struggling, clearly. The man who thrived under adversity was creaking.
The grumblings about Laxman's knees, his fielding and his running between the wickets has increased. It is obvious that Laxman has been unfit for some time now. In another team, he would probably have been given an ultimatum to get fitter or been axed. Laxman has had dodgy knees and a troublesome back for some time, and the fact that this put pressure on his shot selection was evident in England and Australia where he was late on his shots. Perhaps a fitter Laxman could have done more on those tours, perhaps not.
In Australia earlier this year, with India have already been beaten 3-0, there was surprise at the decision to play an unfit and out-of-form Laxman in the Adelaide Test. Sanjay Manjrekar was one of the most vocal of critics, stating that it was the reality of India's cricket culture - that the stature of the batsman who needed to be dropped did not allow for such a call.
To believe that Laxman will continue after a miserable run in Australia is optimistic. Age appears to have caught up with him, and India have a busy home season ahead - two Tests against New Zealand, three against England and four against Australia between August and March. That Laxman will be a part of all nine Test matches is unlikely. He will be 38 in November, during England's visit.
Laxman has not spoken openly about his plans as a Test player, but one comment he made earlier this year suggested that he may have not come to terms with the impending. During Dravid's retirement function, Laxman told his former team-mate that he would miss his presence in the slip cordon. As sweet and emotional as that comment was, made from one friend to another, it left a discomforting after taste - does Laxman think he is a certainty for India's future Test assignments?
If he has not considered his role in the team and his continued ability to perform up to expectation, then the selectors must act in the benefit of Indian cricket. Indian cricket is in a phase of transition and calls need to be taken. There can be no replacement for Laxman so to argue that the younger crop does not look capable is futile. But change is needed. It is a truism of sport that all good things come to an end. India's selectors must select a team for the future.
While the heart yearns for one final Laxman master class, one final display of all that made watching Laxman so fulfilling, there is an even stronger emotion. And that is that looking back is not the way to look ahead.
More about Jamie Alter
Having reconciled himself to the fact that he would never get paid to play cricket, Jamie Alter decided on the next best thing – writing on the sport. Having ditched a stint at an insurance firm in Boston, Jamie joined ESPNcricinfo where he worked for five years, covering cricket apart from trying to improve – unsuccessfully, ultimately – his technique against the short ball in office cricket. After taking a break to author two cricket books, Jamie joined CricketNext as editor in 2011.
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