When asked if I would review VVS Laxman's autobiography, I said yes immediately. As a young boy holding my father's hand, I gaped adoringly at ML Jaisimha. As a teen and college-goer, Gundappa Viswanath held an appeal that went beyond his batsmanship or sense of sportsmanship. Then came Laxman and made sure that I enjoyed my cricket in the 2000s as much as I did when a kid. Sure, I wanted to read his autobiography.
Everyone knows autobiographies are sometimes a let-down. Sachin Tendulkar's Playing it My Way was a prominent reminder of how prosaic they can be. On the other hand, the searing honesty with which Sanjay Manjrekar described his relationship with his father, Vijay, in Imperfect made us realise what courage it takes to share with complete strangers things that are private in a home and family. Laxman's 281 and Beyond (could there be a more evocative number in Indian cricket history?) is steeped in sincerity too.
Who helps you write your story is critical. R Kaushik is the perfect foil to Laxman. One can sense his gentle hand, even as one discerns the story is told by Laxman and there are many passages where Laxman speaks to us from his heart.
There are no flourishes, no clever phrases, hardly any humour. Inevitably some anecdotes and descriptions of passages of play are repeated. A few excruciating details are served up along the way. And one can see how Laxman and Kaushik were challenged trying to balance chronology and theme. But these are insignificant when you consider what Laxman chose to share with us. Let me list some of these without referring to my notes, for that is the best way to recall what made an impact.
Laxman does not hesitate to say that his relationship with John Wright was never the same after he was ignored for the 2003 World Cup. And yet his admiration for what the coach accomplished and his gratitude for Wright's mentorship remain unshaken. It is the same with Rahul Dravid, who perhaps did not back Laxman when Laxman thought it was most needed, but reading this memoir one guesses they share a good friendship. Throughout the book, Laxman shows it is possible to frankly call out negative experiences without corroding a relationship.
The one person Laxman cannot forgive - and that is more from the perspective of Indian cricket at large - is Greg Chappell, but even here he says how much he admires Chappell the batsman.
There are people Laxman is obviously fond of. He does not mind telling us that Zaheer Khan, Gautam Gambhir, Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag are close friends, whose company and trust he enjoyed the most. There are anecdotes about Tendulkar's generosity, laid out with complete affection, and it is clear there is a solid friendship there. From Laxman's fulsome praise of Anil Kumble, the cricketer, the captain and the human being, he seems to be telling us Kumble was the finest leader he played under. Even if he is not, Laxman might not argue if we drew that conclusion.
Laxman is not afraid to speak about his vulnerabilities and the tumults of his mind. That is courage. One feels for him when he says that that he wept in front of Andrew Leipus, the Indian team's physio, fearing he might not play against Australia in Kolkata in 2001. That was at a time when his career was on the brink. But when as a member of the iconic "Fab Four" he sheds tears, consumed by self-doubt, he reveals how troubled the mind of an established star too can be. The insecurities and fears, the burden of expectation, the self-absorption essential to a performer from whom only excellence is expected - Laxman lays all these bare for us. Imagine a 37-year-old star, husband, and father of two, playing in his final series, refusing to take calls from his wife 6000 miles away because he is moping in his room about a run of low scores and crushing defeats. Dravid and Tendulkar had to bang open his hotel door at 1am to make sure he came out of his self-imposed grieving.
There is a message there for the millions of fanatical cricket followers in India: to remember what our young cricketers endure in their suffocating cocoon of stardom, affluence, unbearable loneliness, pressure to perform, and thoughts about the uncertainty of life after cricket. In telling his story Laxman is also encouraging current cricketers to seek counselling and professional guidance when required. His family and friends are his rock. As is his other pillar - God. One doesn't know how atheists and agnostics will react to his frequent appeals for divine support, but he seems to be saying: if you believe, then ask Him for help; as much and as often as you need.
Laxman is not coy about his batting. When on song, he tells you, he was among the best. He could hit the same ball to the boundary at cover, long-off or midwicket. He dissects his ability to play wonderfully with the tail, the simplicity of his explanation subtly letting us know that not everyone can shepherd the tail. He talks of the power of visualisation and how that is as important as all the practice one does before a game.
Out there in the middle, he was not assailed by self-doubt, but was a calm, steely warrior. Ian Chappell, after watching one of his many effulgent innings, said, "VVS marches out to bat with the gait of a drill sergeant." In this book, Laxman the batting gladiator and second-innings legend sits in perfect harmony with Laxman the self-absorbed, worried person off the ground.
I must not forget to add that there is a vital chapter on slip-catching, as educative and informative as it is exhilarating.
To do the right thing at all times, never be seen as selfish, swallow disappointments because it is a team game, cheer a team-mate who is a hero even while failing oneself, make sure one never lets family down, never lets country down - a bit burdensome, eh? No wonder cricketers have such trouble with their backs.
281 and Beyond
By VVS Laxman