Strokes of a real master

Strokes of a real master

batman:  Virender Sehwag has chosen to walk a different path in the cricketing world. AFPEnglish County championship game, 2003. Virender Sehwag and Jeremy Snape are batting for Leicestershire against Middlesex, Abdul Razzaq wreaking havoc with a prodigiously reverse-swinging ball. “I have a plan,” Sehwag tells his bemused, almost disbelieving, partner. Next ball, he deposits Razzaq out of the park. Ball lost, bring on a fresh ball. Bye bye reverse swing!

Even if it were not the truth, this would make a fascinating story. That it is nothing if not the truth merely adds to the Virender Sehwag mystique.

Sehwag has broken every mould, exploded every theory, debunked every myth associated with opening the batting in Test cricket. He has done it without fuss – if you can call striking at 80 runs per hundred deliveries faced in the five-day game without fuss! – and with not merely frightening intent but spectacularly consistent results. He has done it on the flat tracks of the sub-continent, on bouncier surfaces in the lands of pace, swing and seam, and on square turners where every fizzing sphere arrives with ‘wicket’ written all over it. He has done it to the world’s quickest, meanest bowlers, and to the mesmeric, versatile tweakers.

To suggest that Sehwag has redefined the art of opening batsmanship, not unlike Shane Warne revived the fading art of leg-spin, will not be in the realm of the fantastic. More than two decades back, Indians breathed easy when Sunil Gavaskar was in the middle because he represented solidity and instilled the belief that the game wasn’t lost; today, when Sehwag is batting, the expectations don’t revolve so much around security as around the sweeter prospect of victory. That’s how much of an impact man this converted opener is.

What is it that sets Sehwag apart from all batsmen of his generation, and most batsmen of all time? Is it his fearlessness, exceptional temperament, a wonderfully uncluttered but hardly unimaginative mind? Is it his brilliant array of strokes, supreme hand-eye coordination, wondrous bat speed, his utter disregard for reputations, conditions and game situations? Or is it his simplistic, yet hardly simple, approach – hit it if you see it?

It’s, of course, all this and more. Bravado can only take you thus far. Sehwag hasn’t got to where is today – over 6000 Test runs, 17 centuries, two triple hundreds, four other double tons including his magical 293 at the Brabourne stadium, and an average in the early 50s – on mere hype and show-boating. He is a true great because he believes in himself, and his self-belief isn’t unfounded.

One of the greatest snubs – an insult, actually – directed at Sehwag came from that combative and big-talking former Pakistan captain, Javed Miandad. The coach of the national team when India travelled to Pakistan in 2004 dismissed Sehwag as ‘a slogger, not unlike Shahid Afridi’. Sehwag will assure you he knew nothing about that statement; you will be hard pressed to believe him, considering his reply was a blistering 309 in his next knock in Multan, when he became the first Indian triple centurion in Tests.

He isn’t the proverbial clown, but Sehwag has a great sense of humour. He gets along famously with umpires and opponents, sings songs batting alongside soulmate Gautam Gambhir, uses the stump microphone to communicate with the third umpire and the match referee while being treated for on-field injuries, and comes up with one-liners that sends the opposition rolling in laughter even if the joke is on one of their own team-mates. Like it was in Multan, 2004.

Shoaib Akhtar repeatedly bounced the dynamite from Delhi, and Sehwag kept ducking under the ball. Every pull not attempted elicited the same response from Akhtar, in chaste but largely unprintable Punjabi, the essence being, “Why don’t you pull me?” For overs together, Sehwag kept his cool, and his mouth shut. When he finally could take it no longer, said something along the lines of, “Are you bowling, or are you begging?!” Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team-mates gave form the go-by, clutched their stomachs and burst out even as Akhtar acknowledged that he had lost the verbal battle too to his worthy opponent.

When Sehwag bats like he did against Sri Lanka in Mumbai, or against Sri Lanka in Galle last year, or against England in Chennai last December, or against Australia in Melbourne in December 2003 – oh! it’s an endless list – he can exhilarate like no modern batsman. Everybody is on tenterhooks – the thousands of spectators filling the stadium, the eleven men in the opposition, the two umpires, his team-mates in the dressing room and especially the man padded up to come in next – as expectancy levels soar. It’s not about good deliveries or bad; it’s about what Sehwag will do with them, because when he is in the mood, he does pretty much what he pleases.

From time to time, given his philosophy about batting, the 31-year-old will frustrate, annoy, disappoint, anger, even enrage. He will play the most outrageous, outlandish stroke at the most inopportune time, but it’s a license he must be, and is, given simply because of the potential for damage he possesses. In a sport where bowlers are generally the game-breakers, Sehwag is a rarity; of all contemporary openers, he is the one that tops the chart of match-defining performances.

On Friday, when he missed the unique opportunity of becoming the first batsman to score three Test triple tons – not even the Don has treaded that territory – he showed neither disappointment nor regret. “Yes, it’s a missed opportunity, but there’s always next time.” Hearing Sehwag say that, you feel it’s neither incredible nor far-fetched. Not unlike the ‘plan’ for the reversing ball. What a character! What a player!

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