The story goes—perhaps apocryphal, but riveting nonetheless—that when he was ostracized from the Indian Test team in 2007 after a string of low scores, Virender Sehwag swore to one of his teammates that he would get a triple hundred, if he ever made a comeback, to prove a point to the selectors.
Since he had already scored one earlier, in 2004 against Pakistan at Multan, this would have aroused more mirth than eyebrows in the dressing room, even if scoring brownie points against selectors is something most players enjoy. Scoring a triple century, after all, is still such a rarity in Test cricket that the probability of Sehwag getting another one was as good as snowfall in Mumbai.
While there is now a clutch (20) of players who have made triple hundreds, only Sir Donald Bradman and Brian Lara, two of the greatest batsmen of all time, had scored two apiece in almost 135 years of the sport. The possibility of another player, even more so a “flagrant strokeplayer” such as Sehwag, doing this was extremely dim.
That same season (2007-2008), Sehwag smashed 314 against South Africa at Chennai, cracked a few other centuries, including a superlative, match-winning double hundred against Sri Lanka in a losing series over the next 18 months, and before circa 2009 had closed, he almost scored a third triple century, this time at Mumbai against Sri Lanka.
Triple-header: Sehwag’s fearlessness is his strength. Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times
His dismissal in the last- mentioned innings came as an anti-climax after 5 hours of adrenalin-driven excitement. Sehwag, in a knock that is best described as a blitzkrieg, had scored 287 of his 293 runs on the previous day; and that minus one hour in which the Lankans had batted. Such had been his rhythm that day that had he got the extra 60 minutes, he would have reached his triple century in a gallop. Sehwag failed by seven runs, yet succeeded in winning over the cricket world to finally acknowledge his genius.
In the history of cricket, only Bradman has scored 300 runs in a single day in a Test; he also averages 99.94 in Tests and is widely regarded as the greatest batsman to have taken guard in the middle. But so compelling was Sehwag’s innings at the Brabourne Stadium that even a hardened critic like Ian Chappell saw no compunction in making a comparison between him and the Don.
Even five years ago, such comparison would have been considered blasphemy, but in a lucid piece for the website Cricinfo in early January, Chappell spells out his arguments clearly. If one has to make a précis of this, it would be that Sehwag, like Bradman, has passed 290 three times, like Bradman, has scored at a faster clip than any other batsman of his generation, has the most number of scores above 150 for an opener (including the immortals Sunil Gavaskar and Len Hutton), and all this is possible because he has an uncluttered mind.
This was not of much help to Sehwag, however, in the first half of the decade he has spent in the game. Despite a hundred on debut, a blazing 195 at Melbourne in 2003, and the first triple hundred at Multan, he was always considered a high-risk player and inevitably fell foul of coaches because he failed to toe the line of technique. Even the relatively benign John Wright has written how he would be driven to despair; his successor Greg Chappell has yet to write about his experiences coaching the Indian team, but his bust-up with Sehwag is now common knowledge.
Chappell was unforgiving even after Sehwag had scored a magnificent 254 at Lahore during the 2005-2006 tour and did not see the opener—along with other players such as Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan—fit into his scheme of things. It could be that Chappell was wary of these players because of their proximity to former skipper Sourav Ganguly, though the argument was the same as Wright’s: He is not responsible enough. Willy-nilly, Sehwag soon found himself out in the cold.
In hindsight, even if taken at face value, the criticism of Sehwag by Wright and Greg Chappell now appear so grossly misplaced as to be laughable. The opener has forced his own grammar and idiom on modern batsmanship. The man who started out as a clone of Sachin Tendulkar (whom he adores even now) has become an original, so much so that even the original original is impressed.
“Sehwag is Sehwag,’’ says Tendulkar today, with undisguised admiration.
What is it that makes the Najafgarh lad into a Nawab of modern batting when redoubtable coaches have been at odds with his technical ability? Ian Chappell writes in the same article: “This (his derring-do) is an area where a coach can’t help a young player; he’s either born with Sehwag’s confidence in his own ability or he’s like the bulk of international batsmen and has moments of doubt. When comparing Sehwag to his own generation, it’s the strike-rate column that shows his true worth to the team.”
This does not mean, of course, that Sehwag is a mindless slogger. There is method to his madness. He has an extraordinarily sharp mind, which calculates the risk percentage of a stroke as quickly as mathematician Shakuntala Devi would.
Contrary to popular perception, he also spends time mulling over his game, and working on his deficiencies continually. A recent interview with Pradeep Magazine in the Hindustan Times (published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint) supplement Brunch highlights this.
Sehwag discloses how the key to his batting is not so much technique or a good eye, but balance. “Sharmaji (coach A.N. Sharma from Vikaspuri) laid great emphasis on my achieving the right balance while playing my shots, especially the transfer of weight from back (foot) to front. His methods of correcting my mistakes were innovative. For instance, I used to drag my back leg while driving the ball. He tied a string to my leg and stood behind the wickets while I was batting, holding the string. If I dragged my leg, he would hold the string tight, not letting me do so.”
This gives an interesting insight into the rigour that Sehwag is willing to undergo to become a better player. Of course, what still makes him unique is an extraordinarily phlegmatic approach off the field and his utter fearlessness on it. Consistently, throughout his decade-long career, whether he had his natural curls, when he lost his hair prematurely, now that he has had a fresh crop woven on. Unlike Samson, nothing has fazed Viru the Brave.
Perhaps the secret lies in what he told us when he had just come in: “Maine maa ka doodh piya hai.”
Ayaz Memon is a Mumbai-based writer and commentator.