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Lax, 281 Syntax Road, Footwork Avenue, Best-ever Innings, Test Cricket

By Santo

Every cricket-obsessed Indian is mighty proud of this address, take it to be their own. Like the 221-B, Baker street that drove English men crazy. Unlike the Baker street address that was home to a fictional yet a popular star, 281 Syntax Road, Footwork Avenue is home to one of the most popular Indian cricket stars’ unbelievable performance that bordered on the fictional.

An unfulfilled drive to genuflect at the altar of Lax, 281 Syntax Road, Footwork Avenue, Best-ever Innings, Test Cricket and how it came to fruition?

Please, there is a reason. A pleasant surprise shall we say, when my kid brother huffed and puffed, retailed the ball-to-ball commentary, or I presumed it to be, of his meeting with Lax, Very Very Special Cricketer as the world calls him. It was brilliant and moving. The least it did was to inspire me to celebrate this 281 Syntax Road, Footwork Avenue.

Obviously, my recounting of the 281 and the Laxman affair will in no way come closer to the brilliance of scribes who have captured this story brilliantly that they have become unputdownable reads down the years.

This address also carries many convictions – 281 is a number that haunts Steve and Australians, Indians don’t knuckle under pressure and there’s a plucky Indian character to make the seemingly impossible possible.

Nineteen years on, Lax seems to radiate astonishing brilliance and that’s what my kid brother found out when he poured his heart out on everything cricket. And yes, he did go down the ‘road’ and the ‘avenue’ leading to that mesmerizing 281.

Down the Syntax Road

Aussies were, up to that moment, breaking Indian batting to pieces. Fade in on Lax as he walks in. An irrational rise in belief of an Indian revival and an Australian mental disintegration. Just the blank mind to start with, as Lax would put it later.

In writing, you vary the syntax to stress a point. In batting, varied syntax will point to the stress you are in. It did when Lax and company were staring at an Indian defeat. This was a ball by ball, session after session and a day after day syntax woven to bat in duress. Mind you, stress and batsmen are usual bedfellows in this sort of precarious condition.

Mind was his oyster then. An understatement to say that the dogged defiance stemmed from an oyster-like defence. And the pearl of 281 was given to us when Lax built that defence forte against distractions. In writing you should kill all the darlings and in batting you just have to kill distractions.

And when he sussed out that becoming syntax for posterity showcased over two full days of stroke-filled sessions, he had found his way to the pearl. At the crease, you could sense the switch – The Monk to the Man and then the Man to Monk again - And it looked like a pendulum swinging back and forth from the meditative to the palliative.

Session after session, bowlers came charging at him. Put the lens on the Monk - A slow delivery from Kasprowicz curving in, and Lax spots it early on and plays a gentle on drive, gentle enough to caress the ball to the boundary. Nobody moved. A rewind of that belligerent on drive. Lax settles at the crease, and the bowler chugs in. The cue to switch on the Monk in him – intense focus on the red cherry. And no cricketing nymphs could upset the Monk in him.

Switch off. Simmer down and a brief respite for the Monk shall we say – You could see the man in him tug at the pads, do a bit of gardening and take a carefree-like-a-lark look at the stands – No laxity in conserving the mental energy.

The chameleon-like switch from Monk to a Man came naturally to him.

Lunch came and went. And at the opposition camp, Steve was making the switch from one bowler to another. Some were strutting their short-pitched stuff. Some relied on the art of nagging line and length bowling. Lax was also put into the lulling flight-and-turn test. Lax was not giving into this intimidation.

The finish line was far, far off. Would Lax capitulate?

At the stroke of lunch and tea, gentlemen went in. Play resumed and Gillespie was gusting up to 85 mph. Lax’ reply came in boundaries. The Monk in him rose to the occasion. Three handsome shots on the off side – a graceful off drive, toes up for a square drive and a glide past gully. Thanks a ton for that Ton Lax, uttered millions on that day.

End of a full day of mesmerizing batting from the Hyderabad icon. The second day unfolded. Spectators still wore that pounding heart, wavering mind and bated breath. Lax didn’t. The same resolve and an intensified Monk to Man switch. Warne or McGrath, Waugh or Kasprowicz, it didn’t disturb him. He was busy taking the Aussies to the cleaners.

You couldn’t take your eyes of that square cut played off the back foot. Mark drops it shot and Lax pounces on it. Hayden then rolled over his arms. Ponting swaggered into his military- medium run-up. Slater was trying hard for that good-length delivery. Never mind.The Monk in him was ready for whatever the ball could do to disturb his penance at the crease.

A lovely back-foot punch to the square point fence elevated Lax as India’s top scorer in an innings. And for all the lovely cuts, pulls, drives, and the glides that his mind conspired, his feet heeded his head. Buoyant, brilliant and ballistic in some sense, was our Lax up till his tired mind failed him.

Driving through the Footwork avenue

A short back lift will give him away. You can swot up his cricketing wisdom and come good over any searching examination on the cricket field. His pen produced master strokes of cricketing nous as did his bat on the cricketing field.

Yes, he once wrote a treatise on the mind-footwork connection in batting. This Crowe also crowed over Don’s and Sachin’s prowess in mastering mindfulness moments. Now to the nub – VVS’ footwork the other day took us down the Crowe memory lane when he celebrated Don and Sachin as the masters of this mind-footwork exploits.

The crux of that 281 battle was turning out to be Lax’ footwork vs Warne’s guile.

Look what his balletic footwork led to. Velvety on drive for one. Warne tosses one up in the air, and Lax dances down the wicket to sweet-time it to the long on boundary. And Warne is not your run-of-the-mill.

You can only gaze at such footwork-led stroke play. This time, Warne fights the ball on the leg stump line. The feet come jumping out to the pitch of ball to execute that inside out cover drive – head still, eyes on the ball, a lovely swing of the bat sends the ball racing to the extra cover boundary. An exquisite extra cover-drive off a leg spinner is a very difficult shot to execute. Lax’ footwork must have made it look simple for all the youngsters watching the game.

A disclaimer, do it at your own peril if you are not the footwork-fuelled, dance-down-to-the-spinner batsman. Yes, you can bring all your cricketing strokes to life, forget it, you can’t when you don’t get your footwork right.

Warne was going to try a different tack. He isn’t your quitter. It was not the natural invite to step out and drive – it was tossed up alright, but it was going to be dropped short. Warne must have contemplated to extract more turn, beguile Lax in the air as well. Our man was sharp as a tack – If there was an instinctive plant of the foot forward, reading the ball in the air, Lax checked his footwork and punched the ball off the backfoot to the cover boundary.

When Chaudvin ka Chand is on air, the evergreen Mohamad Rafi whispers wisdom on style, throw, pitch, and voice control and what not you should imbibe as an enthusiast. Tune into 281, you can follow Lax’ footprints to discover finer footwork tenets.

McGrath steams in and delivers his thunder – a short-pitched stuff. Lax’ back foot moves across followed by the lovely roll of the wrists to send the ball to the mid-wicket fence. What will catch your eye is the ‘swivelling’ of his backfoot to complete the stroke, a finer footwork element to play the pull shot to perfection.

Digress for a moment.

Swivel, and I am reminded of my coach parroting about swivel. In this case, to a group of off break bowlers like me. Then we read the off-spinning bible, EAS Prasanna. You couldn’t take your eyes of that swivel of the front foot, and then the magic of flight and spin - a delight to watch.

Back again.

Lax and stroke play beckoned us. Lax’ scintillating footwork enthralled us that historic day. And Lax’ footwork was too good to put Aussies on the back foot.

The Best Ever

When Kenny Rogers crooned the line, ‘And I heard him say’, in the touching ‘Coward of the County’, it was riveting as it was convincing for us to lap up the final say of a son to his dead father. I did. And I did hear many people say – The Best Ever, Lax’– And they did set me up to accept the inevitable.

Turning the match on its head. Those who had the ringside seat, watched, or tuned into BBC Test Match Special that day will vouch for one thing - Botham’s 1981 at Headingly was a gallant match winning innings. And then Lara’s 153 snatching victory from Australia was akin to a bed of roses being laid over a land of thorns.

Gary Sobers’ 254 for the World-XI against Australia was more of a commando-style revival. Don termed it the best innings he had ever seen. Botham’s was breezy. Lara’s was classical, and of course, Gary’s was ballistic. For all that, Lax played a gem characterized by the Monk-aided, balletic footwork fueled innings that made the impossible possible. A notch higher, I thought, to have played the best ever. Don’t drop a drop of ‘delusion’ into this and try to muddle my unshakable belief.

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