VVS Laxman was a soft-spoken and shy cricketer during his playing days. When I picked up his autobiography – “281 and Beyond”, I did not expect anything different. However, Laxman pours his heart out in a very candid and genuine account of his life and the book makes for a nice and inspiring read.
The book starts off with Laxman taking us through one of the most inspirational moments in Indian cricket history – the 281 Test Match at Eden Gardens in 2001. With Australia having won 16 successive Tests and enforced a follow-on, India’s chances of saving the Test were one-in-a million. But cricketers like Laxman and Dravid come once in a lifetime. India were at 232/4 when Dravid had joined Laxman and when Laxman departed, the score read 608/5. McGrath, Warne, Gillespie and Kasprowicz were taken to the cleaners. Australia lost 7 wickets in the last session of the last day and India had pulled off a sensational victory. Since then, Indian cricket’s fortunes changed and under Ganguly, the team reached new heights.
Laxman recalls how he had almost missed that match due to a back problem and how Andrew Leipus (then physio) and God ensured that he played the match and re-wrote history. Reading this chapter made me take a trip down memory lane – I was in class 8 when 281 happened and we were all in shock and awe at the turn of events on day 4 of the match. After that victory, Indian cricket under Ganguly reached new heights and India became a force to reckon with in Test cricket away from home as well. There is an interesting anecdote mentioned where Ganguly, decides not to expose Harbhajan Singh further in a warm-up game before the start of the series, after seeing him bamboozle the Aussies in the first innings of the match. Harbhajan gets picked in the squad and doesn’t bowl in the second innings. It gives an insight into the planning that goes behind-the-scenes. Laxman also analyzes the captaincy and mindset of legendary cricketers like Sachin, Sourav, Rahul, Anil and MSD, having played under all of them.
Born in a middle-class family to doctor parents, Laxman talks about how he had to make some difficult career choices – to skip pursuing medicine for the sake of cricket. He also gives a vivid account of his journey in his club cricket days – how being the junior most team member, he would religiously lay down the mat on the pitch and take it as a learning ritual without any cribbing. His Ranji trophy journey of building a career brick-by-brick and putting in the hard work day in and day out , the importance of a mentor ( his uncle) is a lesson for every youngster that there is no substitute for hard work.
Although Laxman was a middle-order batsman in first-class cricket, he was selected as a Test opener in his initial years as that was the only slot available. Playing for the country overcomes individual aspirations and while opening was not his natural game, he still tried his best and came up with a few good knocks. After a few years as an opener, a frustrated Laxman decides enough is enough, puts his foot down and convinces the team management that he is best suited in the middle order. This part of the book makes for an interesting read as it reveals a tenacious and gritty side of VVS, which is not known to many.
Laxman also speaks his mind regarding the match-fixing controversy and the Greg Chappell era. His take on Greg Chappell’s “divide and rule” style of management is candid as well as shocking to read. Like all sportspersons, he also has had his share of disappointments. He pours out his frustrations at not being selected for the 2003 World Cup and not able to win a Ranji Trophy championship for Hyderabad. He also talks about his unwavering belief in God helps him tide through various setbacks in his career.
For a man who averages 46 in Test cricket, with 135 catches, 17 centuries and close to 9000 runs, Laxman’s place was always under the scanner. Despite that, Laxman has featured in quite a few victories – Johannesburg ( where he played with the tail to set up a huge lead), a last-wicket victory with Pragyan Ojha and Ishant Sharma against the Aussies in Mohali, the famous Adelaide win in 2003 with Dravid are some of the ones he recalls. His last match was in Adelaide and it feels sad that he could not play his farewell match on Indian soil. Laxman also describes the mixed emotions in announcing his retirement just ahead of a home Test series against New Zealand.
Unlike a few autobiographies which tend towards self-glorification, this one is a genuine and honest account of a cricketer who made it big with his hard work, dedication and commitment, became a household name after 281, had an up and down journey but was always humble , simple and genuine. A man who gave up his status as an “icon” player so that his IPL franchisee could use the money for buying players, a man respected for his behavior on and off the pitch, a man who took his father’s words “The profession doesn’t glorify you.. YOU glorify the profession” and gave it meaning, Laxman will always hold a “Very Very Special” place in every Indian cricket fan’s heart. “281 and Beyond” is a reflection of this selfless cricketer. It’s a must read for cricket fans.