A Collage of Memories – The Magic of Virender Sehwag
“Sehwag has been described as a simple cricketer who didn’t think much and just batted. The see-ball, hit-ball cliché must have been used a million times on him. Adjectives like brutal, primitive, savage have been used by copywriters to describe his batting.”
Raj Swaroop explores how the maverick Virender Sehwag wore different hats to blaze his way through the most vicious of bowling attacks.
On the 3rd afternoon one of India’s batsmen was playing as though they were chasing only 150. Makhaya Ntini, the tireless, has been smashed for a few in that over. Last ball before Tea comes up. Ntini goes around the wicket. The South Africans usually plan well. They have been drilled that this chap doesn’t like them just short of a length around his ribs. The batsman is ready; he makes room outside leg and flays it over mid-off for four. His eyes barely follow the ball; he does not even look at his partner – the peerless Rahul Dravid, no less – turns around instantly and un-straps his gloves. The umpire removes the bails a couple of moments later. Job done for the session, Virender Sehwag strides off for Tea.
Virender Sehwag, the office-goer.
The most accomplished batting quartet in recent memory has been tied into knots by a barely known spinner. He seemed to slip the ball through his knuckles and control it on a string. India loses the Colombo test by an innings and plenty and Ajanta Mendis has acquired something of an aura. The experts went gaga on Mendis and understandably so. He can bowl six different deliveries with a similar action, and you cannot read which is which, as though the bowling was some kind of an arcane Da Vinci code.
The action shifts to Galle. Sehwag drives, cuts, flicks and lofts with disdain. He plays with total freedom. He ignores Mendis’ action and proceeds to play everything off the pitch. Like an engineering college student, preparing for a project presentation on the 11th hour, he does it, just in time, just. At the other end, the fabulous four bat as though Mendis is bowling grenades at them instead of a cricket ball. Sehwag ends with 201 not out of 329 – these numbers are etched in memory – and India win easily, by 170 runs. The only other Indian opener to have carried his bat through a Test innings, hold your breath, is the venerable Mr. Sunil Gavaskar. Not a bad record for someone they called a simple minded slogger.
Virender Sehwag, the cryptographer.
Steve Bucknor was their unofficial 12th man and the media were their cheerleaders – minus the frilly skirts and pom-poms. Australia intimidated like no one did in the last 20 years. They spoke of chin music. Adelaide has been won by Rahul Dravid’s iron will with VVS and Agarkar playing support roles. Wait for Boxing Day at Melbourne, they warned. Aakash Chopra was new and raw, but played with a straight bat and stout heart. Sehwag was restrained for awhile. They score 8 runs in the first half hour. They tap and run for a few as they grow bolder. Brett Lee pings them both on their helmets a few times.
Over the years Indian fans have resigned themselves to seeing their team being bullied on green tops. They are used to seeing some resistance, even counter-attack in the case of Sachin Tendulkar and eventual succumbing. This is 2003, things are different. The pitch eases a bit in the second session and Sehwag counter-punches – just like a hero in an Indian masala movie. One shot stands out in memory – Stuart MacGill tossed one up on middle and leg and Sehwag’s foot moves, not towards the ball but outside the line and arms lash out like a tennis forehand. Four, through long-on.
The opening partnership crosses 100 in no time. 300 up well before stumps. Visions of a dominant win are raised in a session. And then, inexplicably, Sehwag hits a Simon Katich full-toss down deep midwicket’s throat when attempting a six on 195, in front of a Boxing Day crowd at MCG. Which Indian batsman would be daft enough to attempt that? But then again, which Indian batsman would have got so far, so fast and in such a recklessly admirable fashion.
Virender Sehwag, the trapeze artist.
Exhibit 1: “Your Irfan Pathans are in every galli and mohalla in Pakistan. We don’t even bother to look at them.” – Javed Miandad
Exhibit 2: “How will you stop the Rawalpindi Express?” asked a journo in a press conference.“Pull the chain” – Saurav Ganguly
That was the verbal sparring before the series began in March 2004. The Indian captain was supremely confident. It seemed to be misplaced, for all the positive talk about Australia India just had drawn the Test series and lost the ODIs by a fair bit. Pakistan at home – worrying. Two of their bowlers – most worrying.
He ran in like a wild horse and bowled like a hurricane. He had announced himself about the same time as Sehwag did, in 1999. I remember an ODI, probably in Jaipur, he sent Saurav Ganguly off the field, dazed after being hit in the ribs. In the Tests that followed, he would silence Eden Gardens with two scorching yorkers and flattening the stumps of two men who would become the greatest of all time.
Later that year, he would land at the World Cup in England and announce that he wanted to cross the 100 miles per hour mark, lose focus and get smashed around by Adam Gilchrist in the final after bossing around the semi-final. But a star had arrived. Shoaib Akhtar had pace and skill to match the bravado.
And then there was Saqlain Mushtaq. Saqlain, who stole the Chennai test by 12 runs, after that timeless classic 136 by he-who-need-not-be named. Saqlain, who bowled death overs in an ODI team that had the 2 Ws and Shoaib. Saqlain, who developed the Doosra into an art form. Saqlain, who was India’s tormentor in chief the last time they clashed in Test cricket. He was making a come-back precisely for his track-record against this opposition.
One hour into the Multan test, things looked different. Aakash Chopra was resolute as ever, but Sehwag had scattered Shoaib, Mohammed Sami and Shabbir Ahmed everywhere. The faster and shorter Shoaib bowled, the harder he was hit. Team’s 100 up before lunch. When Shoaib repeatedly kept asking him to play the hook shot, Sehwag asks the close-in fielders “Yeh bowling kar raha hai ya bheekh maang raha hai? [Is he bowling or begging?]”. Even they couldn’t stop laughing, the story goes. Demon No 1 – check.
Saqlain, when he comes on, is smashed around as though pre-meditated. But no, that’s how Sehwag plays the spinners. He ends the day on 228* as India cross 350. His 300 eventually comes up in quick time on the second day, how else, by a six from 295. Off who else, but Saqlain who concedes more than 200 in the innings. That the Test was won by an innings, is history. Saqlain loses confidence and is dropped for the rest of the series, into oblivion. Demon No 2 – check.
Virender Sehwag, the exorcist.
Chennai again, in December 2008.
England set 387 to chase in the fourth innings. One day and one session to bat to survive, to win or to lose. The highest fourth innings score to be chased in India, the highest to be chased by India after 1976.
Anderson, Harmison, Flintoff, Swann and Panesar are taken apart in a whirl of cuts, drives, flicks and reverse sweeps. The 50 is up in 5 overs, in a Test match. Read that again, 50 up in 5 overs, in the 4th innings of a Test match. Sehwag is out before stumps, but more than 120 runs, a third, have been chewed off from the huge target. The target becomes much more manageable on Day 5 and India completes a famous win comfortably. In a match that had 4 centuries, of which 2 by Andrew Strauss. Sehwag’s 83 gets the Player of the Match award, for the sheer effect in knocking the English bowlers off their feet.
Virender Sehwag, the bandit.
Colombo, September 2002.
Champions Trophy Semi-final against South Africa.After Sehwag’s customary frenetic start, India looked good for 300 but end up at 260. South Africa seems on course with Gibbs scoring a 100 and Kallis giving strong support. India’s tournament was up, we thought. Suddenly Gibbs retired with cramps and the ball was coming slow off the Premadasa wicket. Part timer Sehwag ties down South Africa with some smart loopy off-breaks. What was an easy chase became difficult when he got Boucher, Kallis and Klusener.
South Africa, who had the match in their back-pocket for the first 40 overs of the chase, choke once again, this time by 10 runs and India were in a final. Ganguly wipes his face again and again, in sheer relief. A stocky, curly haired chap, that was not Sachin, ran up from behind and hugged the captain with a laugh.
Virender Sehwag, the pickpocket.
The IPL, that epitome of subtlety and restraint, is in town. I don’t recall the opposition, or the venue, or the year. All I recall was that Sehwag was playing for Delhi Daredevils, wearing their Blue and Red.
A stiff target had been set and Sehwag had made a blazing start, crossing 50 in no time. It would be a comfortable win, but there was some distance to go, yet. One over had ended and batsmen were walking towards each other for their mid-pitch talk. The DJ belts out raucously, “Dekha jo tujhe yaar”. As the camera pans and zooms to Sehwag, his lips mouth the second line “Dil mein baji guitar”, as he nonchalantly taps the pitch with his bat, with rhythmic nods of the head.
Great gurus conduct retreats to corporate executives to impart this skill. This is the finest example of someone staying in the present moment that I have witnessed.
Virender Sehwag, the modern day yogi.
Sehwag has been described as a simple cricketer who didn’t think much and just batted. The see-ball, hit-ball cliché must have been used a million times on him. Adjectives like brutal, primitive, savage have been used by copywriters to describe his batting.
However, to think he was a brainless basher who merely relied on hand eye co-ordination was to do him a great disservice. So too was to dismiss him as an Asia only player, for he shined in England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa too. He scored big runs against all these teams and Pakistan, who always had quality bowling. He had one of the sharpest cricketing minds, which lies hidden beneath the mountains of clichés bestowed on him. He knew his game, the state of the match the opposition bowlers and the pitch all too well. And to still play the way he did, knowing how big the stakes were only shows the amazing level of self-confidence in his own abilities.
“Anatomy of a classic” is a must read interview, on www.espncricinfo.com where Sehwag shares about the thought process behind the construction of an innings Chennai against a full-strength Australian team. He names each opposition bowler in an entire Test match series from memory, he explains why he played different shots to similar deliveries at different times of the match, the reasons for his body language and demeanour at a certain time of the day, his approach towards Shane Warne and several other interesting facets from an insider’s view.
As ironic as it sounds – Virender Sehwag, the thinking cricketer.
When Kumble called time, in the middle of the Delhi test, I was in the middle of work. It was meant to be Ganguly’s farewell series, ending at Nagpur. When his mates hoisted Kumble on their shoulders and walked around the Kotla, a phase of life ended. When Ganguly, the sentimental favourite left, it left a void. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman followed four years later and it seemed inevitable. Then the Master went and the age of innocence had ended.
Viru calling time, has strangely given me relief. It was not a joy to see him in glasses, attempting a comeback, playing tentatively and failing repeatedly against Australia at home. The painful struggle will not be there, nor will the wishful lingering. As he disarmingly hinted at a recent presser – he has not been in the team for almost two years and is retired for all practical purposes.
Just that the official announcement came, and with it ended an era in Indian cricket. The image endures in the mind’s eye – that of Virender Sehwag, in white long-sleeves, on a first day morning taking on the best bowlers of his era and doing it in audacious style.
Farewell old friend, thanks for those wonderful memories and bringing back those lines of Dylan Thomas.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
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