‘When Indian team is in trouble next time, I’ll still look for Laxman to walk out as assurance’
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"They dreaded running into this big barrier called Laxman. Our bowlers would talk about avoiding his school in the knockouts fearful of his big scores," Gopi remembers, of a rival at the fiercely contested inter-school championships in Hyderabad. The little duels in their nascent sporting careers in the famed Stanislaus and Montford Games of the city, known for its wristy wizards had left a deep impression. "We travelled together to competition venues in our school days and I knew of him well before he became a Test cricketer," says Gopi.
Only a year older to the rising cricket star, Gopi was to find his ultimate glory, and the victory's afterglow, reflect in a pair of equally kind and tenacious eyes — VVS Laxman's. And at almost the same time, in that glorious week of March a decade and half later, in 2001. The ace shuttler cornered the hallowed All England title on March 11 that year, the same day the famous Eden Gardens Test against Australia got underway. Gopi's city-mate was to give him reasons to go on beaming by scoring a memorable 281 against the Australians, who were as dominant on the cricket field as the Chinese were on a badminton court.
Legend has it that in the famous Test against Australia, when India were reeling after having to follow-on, Sachin Tendulkar had made a spirited speech before the start of the second innings. He exhorted his team-mates to take inspiration from Gopi's All-England victory at Birmingham, tidings of which had brought some cheer to Indians, anxious about their cornered cricketers. Still, the batsmen had to go out and do their job, and it was the other elegant Hyderabadi who set up his own date with destiny.
"I reached India and watched Laxman's brilliant innings that day and the next and read and re-read about what he did to the Australians in newspapers. People started recognising us around the same time," Gopi remembers.
"We met at a small function that was organised for both of us a few days later. It was too noisy to chat," Gopi recalls of that meeting. What was unsaid though — and would never be, given their modest natures — was the proud realisation that the two had helped India, a nation of few sporting victories, to make a statement of its own. "It was a hugely emotional week for Indians, and I was told many times later, that since it happened around the same time, it meant a lot to the nation," he adds.
Dealing with fame
It was glory joined at the hips for the pair of similar Hyderabadis, and the twin-triumphs changed nothing in their soft-spoken manners or gentle dispositions. "He's always remained a decent, soft-spoken man, non-controversial and ever the gentleman," Gopi says.
"It's not like Laxman 'dealt' with fame and chose to not become flamboyant. It's just that people realised that's how he always was. He would do his job, was always dependable and gracious. Many people played for India in that time, but not many lasted. Those who did proved that they were made of a certain strong inner material," Gopi says.
In his cricket, Gopi most loved Laxman's ability to dig deep to get the team out of trouble, a steely quality he rates even above the tall man's silken prowess when driving. "When in flow, I've never been able to decide who's more elegant — Sachin or Laxman, and I'm a big Sachin fan!"Gopi says.
The shuttle coach was to trade notes with Laxman several times later — discussing fitness, food and the precise diet that would enable him to keep going. "He always told me badminton's such a physical game, and wondered how difficult it must be to keep at it," Gopi says. The two also talked spirituality and about travelling to different countries at length whenever they met. "He's a very stable sportsman, and his thoughts and actions are one," Gopi adds. Gopi had always admired how Laxman, a son of doctors, juggled academics and sport, and cited his example to his wards.
"He's never changed. And if the Indian team's in trouble, I'll still search for Laxman to walk out as assurance," he ends.
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