By the time India reached Sydney for the third Test of the 1999/00 series against Australia, the series was already gone. The visitors had lost the first Test at Adelaide by 285 runs and the second by 180 runs. They were demoralised and it showed in their play.
After winning the toss and electing to bat first, India made just 150 in their first innings. Glenn McGrath with five wickets and Brett Lee, with four, made short work of the Indian batting order. Tendulkar made an aggressive 45 off 53 balls and no one else came up with an innings of any significance.
In reply, Australia put up a massive 552/5 declared on the board. Justin Langer led the way with a classy 223 while Ricky Ponting, batting at No 6, scored 141. The innings lasted 140.2 overs and seemingly finished off the Indians.
The second innings was then a mere formality. India were expected to come out, get out and disappear. Well, that was the plan.
With the total on 11/0, opener VVS Laxman was hit on the helmet by a bouncer. He tried to sway out of the way but the ball followed him and the blow shook him up.
“Like it had in Cape Town when Donald hit me, this shocked me out of my reverie,” Laxman wrote about the moment in his autobiography ‘281 and Beyond’.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t shaken up, but since my childhood, I had always scored heavily when in physical discomfort. McGrath followed up that bouncer with a half-volley that I put away for four, and I was up and running.”
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Now, this wasn’t the Laxman we all grew up watching. Rather, this was a Laxman who was still feeling his way in at the Test level. He was unsure, he was holding himself back. As the second innings began, his career statistics read: 17 Tests, 0 hundreds and an average of 23.44.
But the bouncer seemed to rouse something deep within him. As opener, he had been trying to play a different game. He had been trying to play the position. He wanted to be correct; he wanted to play out the overs; he wanted to survive. The bouncer, one might say, knocked the safety pin out and he exploded out of the blocks.
Now, his plan changed. As he detailed in his autobiography, he decided to cut loose.
“I wanted to prove to a point to myself, show that I was capable of getting runs at the highest level, against any opposition and under any conditions. I took everything else out of the equation. I didn’t think about past failures, I didn’t worry about what the future held. I was in the zone. I allowed my instincts to take over, and they didn’t let me down. I played like I did for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy, with a free and clear mind.”
“On that quick pitch, I realised that there were so many shots in my repertoire that I had subconsciously put away. Th blow to the helmet was instrumental in sharpening my reflexes, and everything else that followed. Out came the drive, the pull, the punch, the cut, the straight drive, the wrists flick. When Warne came on, I stepped out and hit him over mid-wicket, over mid-on, against prodigious turn. After a long time, I was playing the ball and not the bowler.”— From '281 and Beyond'
The wickets kept falling at the other end – 22/1, 26/2, 33/3 but to most Indian fans watching that day, it didn’t matter; it didn’t matter because Laxman pulled you in and made you forget that India were in trouble.
His natural elegance allied with an aggressive mindset and pushed back at Australia. Even the crowd at Sydney couldn’t help but appreciate his shot-making. Each boundary was applauded.
It helped that Steve Waugh was going for the kill and setting aggressive fields but take nothing away from the knock. It had class stamped all over it. Nothing the Aussies threw at Laxman that day seemed to make an impact.
If anything, one wondered why he didn’t play like this more. He got to his 100 off 114 balls with 16 boundaries. It was his first Test hundred. And then, as he got tired, he upped the ante even more.
When the dust settled, he had scored 167 off India’s 261 runs in a remarkable exhibition of batting. The crowd gave him a standing ovation and the Aussies clapped him off the ground. The match was won by Australia but the battle had Laxman written all over it.
At the launch of his book in 2018, Laxman told reporters that the 167 was career-defining for him.
“281 is definitely a very memorable knock and a match for me, that Kolkata Test match and the series itself. But, 167 gave me the confidence that I can perform at the highest level,” he said.
He added: “Because the situation we were in, and the conditions, it was quite challenging and also one of the best bowling line ups in world cricket. To go out and get my first Test 100. That was very important for me to realise that I had the potential to perform even at the highest level. So, I think that 100 gave me the confidence that I can take on the best in various conditions and various situations. That turned around my career if I may say.”
You can watch the highlights of Laxman’s ‘Very, Very, Special’ innings below: