By John Cheeran
It is easy for a cricketer to hit a hundred than writing a book. Batting is an expression of his art in his own language while writing is explaining the world around him in another, if not alien, language. And when it comes to writing about his own life, that becomes all the more tricky; you are worried that certain boundaries should not be crossed, lest such shots damage others as well as yourself.
An autobiography in the middle 40s is too early for a politician or a scientist or an actor or artist. But not for a sportsman since by that age his or her active playing career would be over. A lookback at his craft, contemporaries and the times is a suitable post-retirement indulgence for a sportsman.
VVS Laxman, the illustrious Indian batsman, has chosen to be bold to take a reflective look at his career in 281 And Beyond (Published by Westland Sport, co-authored by R Kaushik, Pages 310, Price Rs 699). I say Laxman is bold because, not many of his contemporaries have written memoirs, however tepid those recollections were. Sourav Ganguly has had one in recent times. Sachin Tendulkar, too, had one a few years ago. Rahul Dravid has had books written about him, but he has not chosen to write his story so far. There have been books about Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli but they are not in the league of an autobiography, where one is expected to expose own defences and hit out.
VVS played his last Test in 2012. He played his career defining innings of 281 in 2001, almost 18 years ago. One is trying to draw the attention to the fact that for many fans this great cricketer’s contribution is becoming a brain fade in late 2018. There are other heroes who are dominating the narrative now. Ideally, this book should have happened soon after his retirement when there was more excitement about his timing, and especially about the timing of his retirement. Better late, than never, as they say.
281 And Beyond is a superb read and in it the stylish batsman talks about his boyhood, family, early career, disappointments in not finding his own place in the batting order, selection whimsies, colleagues and coaches. A typical cricket life.
The book, naturally, begins with his 281 against the Steve Waugh’s Australians and how his promotion from No.6 to his desired No.3 by coach John Wright and his visit to Shirdi to pray to Sai Baba made that wonderful innings possible, braving recurring backaches.
VVS ticks all the typical boxes in a typical cricketer’s career while writing this autobiography. His rendering of sporting life is very important because he was not a wonder boy (In his Ranji debut, he had a duck; a mere 4 runs in his Test debut) to begin with but an ordinary lad from a middle class, conservative family background, the category to which most of the boys who are dreaming about an Indian cap belong to. They all should read and learn about how relentless the pursuit of success, how evenly VVS had to chase academic as well as sporting excellence, how he had to take selections as well as omissions from the squads, both at junior and senior levels and how many people selflessly guided and groomed on his way to success. His doctor parents drilled humility and spirituality into a young VVS; his maternal uncle Baba Krishna Mohan almost scripted the nephew’s sporting journey and a whole lot of Hyderabadi colleagues who lent more than their bat to the budding batsman.
For all that, the fact that VVS has chosen to ignore the big questions of his playing career such as match-fixing in this book, having taken ample time to reflect on those tumultuous transitional times, is a huge letdown. Tendulkar had ignored the subject, now VVS, too, has followed suit, despite one of the Indian players seriously implicated at that time was from Hyderabad, and his skipper both for the India and Hyderabad Ranji teams. “I was not aware of it” is all that VVS concedes and it is obvious that he knows much more than he is willing to share between the covers.
Known as one of the most gentlemanly cricketers India has ever produced VVS does not want to hurt anyone. His bitterness comes out only when dealing with the abrasive and no-nonsense Australian coach Greg Chappell. He recalls how in 2007 during the South African tour, the team bus left the hotel for the stadium without waiting for him, despite him being one of the not out batsmen scheduled to resume the innings, an indication of the complete breakdown of communication between players and the team management.
One of the regrets of his playing days was not being picked for the World Cup squads of 2003 and 2007. He, the touch player, was better suited than his 2003 replacement Dinesh Mongia. But he lived with that taunt from the selectors.
What comes as a surprise is his praise for IPL, despite his disastrous engagement with Deccan Chargers in the early years of the league. He finds that IPL helps young players getting exposed to superstars of the game for at least two months every year, sharing a dressing room, watching them prepare, understanding their mindset, asking questions and readying themselves for what lies ahead. He ascribes the turnaround in the attitude of the young Indian cricketer to the IPL’s arrival and progress. VVS was never the rebel, but he has now decided to join the establishment in full earnest.
I was delighted to read that VVS hit his first Ranji Trophy century in the non-descript rubber town, Kottayam, in Kerala. His admission of having hit only five sixes in his Test career (he played 134 matches) will tell in you in a sentence what his batting was all about.
For all that I would have wanted to know from him who first dubbed him as Very, Very, Special Laxman. Does he even know?
And it is absolutely strange that that VVS scored his career-defining 281 in Kolkata with a borrowed bat does not find a mention in the book.