Way back in the early Oughts, Prem Panicker, used to have an online talk-chat show called “Panix Station” (before podcast was even part of the public parlance) where people could send questions in by email. The show’s producer would read the question and Prem would give his take on it. It has since been discontinued and Prem has moved on to bigger and better things.
During the entire life of that show, I had sent in one question/comment only. It went something like this: “I don’t know why people are cribbing so much about how Virender Sehwag bats. He is a free spirit and he brings that refreshing attitude to his batting. Sure, there will be times when he gets out in a silly looking manner, but the team management seems to be okay with it. They seem perfectly happy with the way he goes about it as more often than not, he pulls it off and puts the opposition bowlers under tremendous pressure. We, as fans, should quit quibbling about his batting style and enjoy it while it lasts.”
If you had seen the way Virender got out in the 2nd test match against Sri Lanka, you would either be banging your head against a wall for he has thrown out an opportunity for a fourth century on trot, or just shrug the shoulder with a nod of the head, acknowledging, “That’s the way he bats.” Loads of ink and acres of webspace have been used up in trying to describe this inimitable genius. Of course, there is more method to the seeming madness.
Batting, when performed correctly, is an absolute work of art. Especially in test match Cricket. Sehwag, with a bat in hand, distills this art form to its purest core – See ball, Hit ball. He has been quoted many times that he doesn’t like to play “boring cricket”. Does this mean he wants to score a boundary of every ball? Of course not. There is a big difference between purposeful batting that is full of intent and general savagery where the batsman goes after everything.
I was looking for opportunities to score runs wherever I could,” Sehwag said of what he was trying to do when, for the third time in the series, he faced short and wide deliveries with a square third man, a deep point and a sweeper-cover in place. “If fielders are there I can hit towards mid-off, midwicket or mid-on. Whatever reasons. Because I don’t want to, you know, play boring Test cricket.
An argument has been made that Sehwag gets “bored” when the fields get defensive and the bowler is pitching the ball two feet outside the off stump. I think that’s a pile of garbage. No “bored” batsman could score the mountains of runs that Sehwag scores if he were actually to get “bored”. Sehwag has the highest percentage of 150+ scores of all batsmen with at least 10 test centuries to their name. All this does is point out the irrefutable fact that when he gets “in”, he kicks on to a very big score. That is not a sign of a batsman that gets “bored”, is it? The bowling and fielding placements get boring, but Sehwag? I don’t think so.
In test cricket, Sehwag gives the bowler the respect he deserves, not because of the bowler’s pedigree or his reputation, but how he is performing that day, that over. He plays out maidens, with rock solid front food defense but the moment he senses any weakness in the bowler, he launches in to him. When bowling to Sehwag, the bowler’s margins for error, diminish rather rapidly to the point of being almost non-existent. If there is a slight mistake in the length or the line, Sehwag duly cashes in with his lightning bat speed, with a typical flay over point. This undoubtedly has a significant effect on bowlers who are not made of sterner stuff.
Imagine you are Uda Walawwe Mahim Bandaralage Chanaka Asanga Welegedara (Now, say that three times fast and all your wishes will be granted!). A decent bowler with moderate talent and medium pace. You are gently trundling along in your run up and you are about to deliver to Sehwag. In the back of your mind, you know you have to be inch perfect. A little bit towards the middle, he will flick you over squareleg. A little wide, you will be slashed over point. Too full, you will be driven down the ground. Too short, pulled over midwicket. This is where Sehwag wins more than half his battles. The bowlers need to be perfect, or they are going to be carted for runs. Quite easily.
In 2003-04 test series in Australia, Sehwag was on the threshold of doing something quite unique in the 3rd test of the series at the MCG – a ravishing double hundred on the opening day of the test – and he was only a shot away at 195. He had just hit the part-time crock of Katich for a six over long on. While trying to repeat the same stroke to get to 201, he holed out. The Indian score was 311-3 and India were bowled out for 366 soon after.
Two things grab your attention: One, The Australian bowlers, including Brett Lee, in home conditions, were bowling pretty well as they got the other 9 wickets for 171 runs and Two, Sehwag made a mockery of that bowling and the conditions. He owned them and tried to bat his way to 200 the only way he knows and in the process he got out, and the rest folded. This has happened a few times where the batting conditions look easy and the bowling benign, when Sehwag is still in, and the rest of the Indian batting just folds up after he is out. Perhaps, they are induced in to a false sense of confidence by the ease with which Sehwag has been dealing.
As a man who had the front row seat to that epic inning at the MCG (and many others during their time together at Ranji trophy matches), I asked former Indian opener Aakash Chopra about this on Twitter and he responded:
Absolutely…he does make it look so simple. The trick is not to believe it.
If this isn’t the sign of a genius, I don’t know what is. He plays with such ease that can only come from the clarity of the mind. There are millions of fans of Indian cricket who will swear by their allegiance for and devotion to Sachin Tendulkar, for the pure joy he has brought to the fans and his unquestionable influence on all batting records. But if you ask them for an honest answer as to who the key to an Indian victory is, the answer will have to be “Virender Sehwag”. In the days following the dastardly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, England agreed to come back and play the test matches in India. The first match was in Chennai and England set an unlikely 387 for India to chase in the 4th innings. Sehwag launched an assault on the English bowling that sunny afternoon at the Chepauk stadium by scoring a blistering 83 of just 66 balls that left a manageable 256 to get on the fifth day which Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh did with aplomb.
One of my friends put this up on his facebook page and I don’t think I can say it any better.
They can debate about the best batsman in the world all they want but there’s no other delight for the fans and no other nemesis for the opposition in cricket today than Sehwag.