Wednesday, 29 December 2010

VVS Laxman - Grace Under Pressure

History is generally not given to precise inflection points - where one can point at a particular incident and say with conviction, "This day marks the start of historical passage X,Y or Z."

For the present Indian team's climb to the top spot of the world rankings though, it is universally agreed that one particular day in one particular match forever changed the way the side thought about winning and losing.

In early March 2001, VVS Laxman walked out to bat for India at Number 3 - it was only the third time in his career up to that point that he had batted at that number - and played what is unquestionably the greatest innings that any Indian has played in any form of the game. Those 281 runs and that immortal win at the Eden Gardens gave the Indian team the belief that come what may they could win from any situation, under any circumstance and in any country.

What that innings also did was establish the fact that when India was under the hammer, they would forever look at one man to pull, cajole, sometimes drag them out of trouble. And for the most part, Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman has never disappointed.

He didn't disappoint in the second Test against South Africa, being the top-scorer in both innings of the match for the Indian team, and putting in a typically special effort in the second innings with 96 of the classiest runs, when India needed them most.

It has often been said that if there was a way to measure the 'value' of runs scored, Laxman might end up as the best Indian batsman ever. While assigning 'value' has so many subjective parameters, it is unlikely to ever be a perfect measure, there are some things that can be measured. For instance, a batsman's performance in the fourth innings of Test matches. The fourth innings has always been the most difficult one to negotiate not only because it is played on the final day of a Test where the pitch has been well worn, but more because of the psychological pressure of playing for a win or a draw that batsmen face in that situation. The only kind of innings where the pressure can be considered equal is one in which the batting side is following-on.

There is of course something to be said for certain third innings too - especially ones where the batting side is battling a huge deficit, but as yet I have not managed to isolate those and cannot do so short of going over the score-cards of every match played.

After the second Test, the batting records of India's cream - Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman - reads thus:

Table 1 - Overall Career Performance:

MatchesInningsNot OutsRunsAverageHighest100s50s0s
Virender Sehwag861486767054.01319222712
Rahul Dravid149257291202752.7527031598
Sachin Tendulkar176288311453256.54248*505914
VVS Laxman11919630785647.33281164912

VVS Laxman is the only one amongst the four whose average is below 50, but it is interesting to note how the tables look when we take into account only fourth innings performances and performances when the team has been following on.

Table 2: Performance in Pressure Innings:

MatchesInningsNot OutsRunsAverageHighest100s50s0s
Virender Sehwag3631570727.1983055
Rahul Dravid625417167045.141802100
Sachin Tendulkar695614165239.33103*473
VVS Laxman483510143757.48281372

That makes for remarkable reading. Each of the four batsmen have played a sufficient number of innings to not make the table meaningless, and it is clear with numbers how the toughest situations bring out the best in VVS Laxman. He averages 57 and a half in the most tough situations, while nobody else is even close. Sehwag's average being where it is ought to be the most paradoxical, because he is the one player who seems capable of shrugging off the pressures of a situation. However, as the numbers show, he hasn't quite been able to do that.

This is also borne out when the stats of the players in question are broken down into first team innings and second team innings. Here is how they stack up:

Table 3 - Performance in First Team Innings:

InningsNot OutsRunsAverage100s50s0s
Virender Sehwag861590469.4621165
Rahul Dravid1498832459.0426365
Sachin Tendulkar17391041163.4837419
VVS Laxman11913478445.1311308

Table 4 - Performance in Second Team Innings:

InningsNot OutsRunsAverage100s50s0s
Virender Sehwag625176630.981117
Rahul Dravid10821370342.565233
Sachin Tendulkar11522412144.3113185
VVS Laxman7717307251.205194

The difference in numbers is fascinating. Sehwag and Laxman seem almost polar opposites in both innings, while both Tendulkar and Dravid have not been bad in the second innings, but not been at the level they have been at in the first.

Just like the fourth innings of a Test is the one that is the most intense for a batsman, on a broader level, the second team innings (i.e. the third or fourth innings overall) is of a higher intensity than the first team innings. And when the intensity levels rise, VVS Laxman seems to find something special inside him to raise his levels accordingly. It is among the more startling facts of Laxman's career that he averages more in the second innings than he does in the first, since the opposite is true for nearly every batsman who has played Test cricket for any length of time.

While averages tell one part of the story, the amount by which Laxman's performances in the second innings differs from that of the first also tell an interesting story, especially when viewed against those of the other three batsmen.

Table 5 - Innings per 100:

First InningsSecond InningsPressure Innings2nd - 1st RatioP.I - 1st Ratio
Virender Sehwag4.1062.00N.A.15.14N.A.
Rahul Dravid5.7321.6027.003.774.71
Sachin Tendulkar4.688.8514.001.892.99
VVS Laxman10.8215.4011.671.421.08

The key columns to see here are the last two - the ones that measure how often relative to their first innings performance, do the players score centuries in the second innings and in the Pressure Innings defined in Table 2. A lower ratio is better, since it shows less variance, and it's no surprise to see Laxman has the lowest ratios. Sehwag scores a first innings century every 4 innings, but a second innings century only every 62 innings - which is reflected in his ratio of 15-plus since he takes 15 times as many innings to score a second innings hundred than a first innings one. Sachin Tendulkar, of course, scores hundreds like no one else, but even though he takes fewer innings than Laxman to score second innings centuries, in comparison to his first innings performance, he takes nearly double the innings to get to a hundred. In pressure innings, Sehwag has never scored a century, while Laxman's performance is practically the same in pressure innings as it is in the first innings, when it comes to reaching three figures.

The numbers are similar for a table of Innings per 50-plus scores, with the difference being that Sehwag has not been nearly as tardy in getting to a half-century as he has been in getting to a century.

Table 6 - Innings per 50-plus scores:

First InningsSecond InningsPressure Innings2nd - 1st RatioP.I - 1st Ratio
Virender Sehwag2.325.
Rahul Dravid2.403.864.501.601.87
Sachin Tendulkar2.223.715.091.672.30
VVS Laxman2.903.213.501.111.21

While all the players have much better ratios in getting to scores of fifty-plus (which includes centuries), Laxman - once again - has the best ratio.

If science evolves enough during his lifetime, the BCCI ought to explore ways of genetically mapping Laxman's brain, figuring out what processes kick in when India is in a pressure situation, and replicating them in every batsman.

It might not be a very fruitful venture though, for there surely cannot be processes to replicate the inventiveness of a flick to a ball outside off-stump that finds its way to the mid-wicket boundary. Or the arc of the bat that curves in ever so gracefully to meet the ball. Or the sheer viewing pleasure that watching VVS Laxman bat is. And they'll certainly never be able to replicate the quiet unassuming nature of a man who is always the first to heed the call of a crisis.

VVS Laxman's brain may be duplicated - his artistry will remain unique

This article was first published here.

Other articles on VVS Laxman by me:

Very Very Stunning
- written after he scored a century at Eden Gardens against South Africa in February 2010

The Last Man Standing
- written after he hit 103 not out in August 2010 to guide India to victory against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in a fourth innings chase that levelled the series.

VVS Laxman. Legend - written after he hit 73 not out in the fourth innings of India's one-wicket win over Australia in October 2010.

1 comment:

Rohit Sharma said...

its good that india has the experts for all situations..and thats what barren dough's team is not having:)