19 November 1996. I was trembling with nervous anticipation as I stood on a chair and looked down at the audience.
This wasn’t something I had anticipated when I was selected to play for the country. Sourav had been unavailable due to injury and Sanjay Manjrekar had decided to open the innings. I had been selected along with Pankaj Dharmani to fill the middle-order spots that had opened up. Pankaj and I had driven down to Ahmedabad from Baroda after playing for the Board President’s XI against the South Africans.
We had all been herded into our coach Madan Lal’s suite for the customary team meeting, the evening before the start of the Test series against South Africa. I had had two solid batting sessions with the team in the lead-up to the Test match in Ahmedabad, and had been reasonably confident after the match-eve stint that I would make my debut the following day. Madan Lal announced the playing eleven and the team broke into spontaneous applause. When ‘Laxman’ rolled off his tongue, I beamed uncontrollably, my eyes glistening with unshed tears. This was it, then, eight weeks after I was first picked for the Indian squad. As was the tradition then, I was asked to address my mates. There was Sachin Tendulkar, our captain and a role model, even though he was from my generation. There was Azzu bhai, my hero and inspiration. Anil Kumble, already a proven match-winner. Javagal Srinath, a senior member and prankster if ever there was one. And Rahul Dravid, who had been my good friend for a long time by then.
Overwhelmed as I was, I struggled to put words together. Then Srinath piped up, ‘Show some respect, man. Stand on the chair and talk to us.’ That put me at ease. A little bit. I climbed up on the chair gingerly, a wide gamut of emotions running through me, ecstasy the foremost one. I launched into a serious monologue about how much this meant to me, how emotional I was, what an honour it was to represent the country. My lips couldn’t keep pace with my racing mind, and I tripped over the words. Before I could make much headway, the guys got together and shut me down. ‘Don’t be so sentimental,’ someone shouted. The rest was drowned out in laughter and controlled mayhem.
My first few months with the Indian Test team were a proverbial roller coaster ride. It was surreal, yet all too real, to experience glorious highs and crippling lows, both from the team’s and a personal point of view. I experienced what it was like to be part of a winning setup, and I realised how confusing it could be for a newcomer when the team was not doing well. I learnt, with a lot of help, that if you were not a part of the playing eleven, you had to find ways to keep yourself prepared and ready for any eventuality. I figured out that there was no safety net if you fell down. I grasped the significance of victory, and I understood why the team was so afraid of defeat.
My first taste of the Indian dressing room as a member of the Test team was at Feroze Shah Kotla in Delhi, for a one-off Test against Australia in October. Prior to the Kotla game, I had played for the Board President’s XI against the Aussies in Patiala. By then, the Test squad had already been announced, so I approached the Patiala game without any nerves or unease.
I had always been a huge fan of the brand of cricket the Australians played, and several of my favourite cricketers were Australian—the Waugh twins, Steve and Mark, and Mark Taylor. We were all to stay in the same hotel, and I was keen to see these guys in the flesh. But the Aussies were to reach Patiala only the day before the match. I requested the hotel manager to inform me when they arrived, but as evening gave way to night, I drifted off to sleep.
It was nearly 9 p.m. when the phone in my hotel room rang. The Aussies had arrived! I quickly got up and stepped out of my first-floor room, from where I could see them at the check-in counter. I stood there for a long time, just soaking it all in. They were the first senior international side I would be playing against. It was better to get the awe out of the way quickly.
Excerpted from 281 and Beyond by VVS Laxman, with R Kaushik, published by Westland Sport.