It is no secret that fans the world over love and cherish their sporting heroes. These heroes do things most of us can only dream of. Some have style, some have charisma, some have raw power and aggression. Some have all of these. But every great sporting dynasty has a rock which cleans up the mess left behind by his team's stars. He's not very flashy, doesn't look hot in jeans, doesn't court media attention. He just keeps going out his job of helping his team win matches.
Derek Fisher does it for the present-day Lakers. The Yankees have Derek Jeter. The treble-winning Manchester United had Roy Keane, the feat being emulated recently by FC Barcelona and Inter Milan who have for years relied on Xavi Hernandez and Esteban Cambiasso respectively. Cambiasso was also big for the Real Madrid from the pre-Galacticos era. Coming to cricket, Australia had Damien Martyn to solidify their famed batting. The West Indies had, at different times, Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, Richie Richardson, Carl Hooper, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
This brings us to the team that is at the top of the table right now. Whether India is the best team in the world is an argument for another time and place. For now, I'm going to focus on the rock in the Indian team. It might come as a surprise to some but the person I'm talking about is not Rahul Dravid. No, Dravid averages a shade over 40 since the West Indies tour of 2006. That he has held onto his number 3 position is more a case of his reputation preceding him.
Here's a look at the performance of Indian batsmen since that tour:
No surprise that the two openers lead the team in terms of batting average, although Gambhir hasn't played a test in Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa or the West Indies during this period. Sehwag's claim to being one of the best is quite legitimate, although he doesn't get past fifty as frequently as some of his teammates (Gambhir 46%, Tendulkar 41%, Laxman 40%, Dhoni 37%, Sehwag 34%). Ofcourse he makes up for it by scoring the biggest hundreds of all Indian players. Meanwhile, VVS Laxman averages almost as much as Sehwag during this period. Skeptics can point to the high number of not outs, but they are overlooking the fact that even though he hasn't get a lot of hundreds, his efforts have been crucial in that he's come in to bat with the team either in trouble or looking to score quickly to enforce a declaration. A lot of times he has had to shepherd the tail as he bats at 5 or 6. Moreover, he has the second-best percentage of 50+ scores so clearly he's been batting really well.
Laxman's performance looks even better when you consider he's been consistently prolific even away from home. Here's a look at how Indian batsman have fared on the road since the West Indies tour.
Tendulkar leads the team when it comes to away performance while Laxman is a close second. Sehwag is third but his average and percentage of 50+ scores drop considerably when he plays away from home. One thing these stats don't tell you is that Laxman has been better than Tendulkar if you exclude performances against Bangladesh. In fact, his average drops to 44 if you take out that opposition. Laxman, though, has maintained his performance by averaging 50.52 if you exclude his innings against Bangladesh. He's also more consistent than Tendulkar, going past 50 in 42% of his innings while Tendulkar has done it in just 34% of his innings. There is definitely a case for Laxman being the most reliable middle order batsman in the side.
So where does Laxman rank among middle order batsmen (Positions 4 to 7) across all teams? Pretty high actually, he has the fifth highest average since September 2006.
Note that he has the highest average for Indian batsmen during this period (This doesn't include his innings at number 3). Again, these numbers look even better when you consider he has maintained his performance away from home. It's all the more admirable considering he's played everywhere except in the West Indies and Pakistan during this period. Here's a look at how he compares with other middle order batsmen away from home during the aforementioned period.
Samaraweera and Clarke drop out of the top 5 and is replaced by AB de Villiers whose home conditions have been kind to bowlers and Sachin Tendulkar thanks to his strong performance in Bangladesh (4 hundreds in 4 tests). Jayawardene is still up there but has been very inconsistent, although he's converted each of his five fifties into hundreds. AB de Villers tops the away list and is sixth otherwise. This augurs well for the youngster who has made no secret of his ambition to be the best batsman in world cricket. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has also been consistently prolific, once again proving that it's important to have a solid batsman to anchor the batting. It's a pity he's surrounded by so many mediocre players, in another era he might have been part of a leading test team.
It's hard to find faults with Laxman's performance over this period. People have tended to get carried away by Sehwag's brilliance and Tendulkar's second coming, but Laxman has been matching them all this while without getting a tenth of the recognition and respect. Even now, opposition players consider Sehwag the key wicket despite Laxman being at the other end. Maybe this plays into his hands as bowlers might relax a bit when bowling to him. It is in this backdrop that one feels happy for Laxman being regarded so highly by the best team in the world in recent years - They have considered him Very Very Special ever since they got Laxmaned at the Eden Gardens.