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New Delhi: Fourteen years after he made a century on debut, Virender Sehwag signed off from international cricket on 20 October, his 37th birthday, after reinventing the role of the opening batsman.

At Vikaspuri G Block Government Boys Senior Secondary School in New Delhi’s unfashionable suburb of Najafgarh, where he took his first steps to cricket stardom, and then at Madras Club, where he turned out as a professional, Sehwag built a reputation for keeping it simple.

It was a dictum he took with him into domestic cricket, playing for Delhi, and even when he went on to open for India. You could see it in his batting; enough experts have commented on that feature. But, equally, you could see it in his general demeanour: there were never any of those twirling moustaches and starry airs that so many of his less accomplished successors seem to be so fond of. On the cricket field, Sehwag batted for his team, and bowled a bit when the skipper threw him the ball. In between, he watched with a slightly disinterested air. No sledging, no exaggerated gestures to the spectators, just do your bit with the bat and ball; mostly with the bat.

Off the field, there was the school he was setting up in Jhajjar district of Haryana, the woman he met early in life and went on to marry, too few commercials for a player of his achievements and virtually no controversies. Viru, as he is known to family and friends, didn’t like to complicate life too much.
Says former Indian pacer Ashish Nehra, who has known him for 20 years and has played for Delhi with him, “He hasn’t changed one bit. He is that kind of a guy where what you see is what you get. He is an uncomplicated person even off the field, much like his batting. He has his own set fundas and does things his own way, like it or not. For example, someone asks him to turn up at a place at 9am; nine out of 10 times, he’ll be there. And if you get late, he will order another car for you and leave. It has happened to me plenty of times."

India has had great batsmen—Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, to name a few. Sehwag would probably not qualify for that list, though many of his supporters may consider such exclusion blasphemy. A test average below 50 means that he falls just short of the “great" list. But Sehwag belongs to an even more exclusive club. He had been India’s most effective “impact" player, someone who could alter the trajectory of a game in a single session of play. Among bowlers, there was Bhagwat Chandrashekhar, an equally enigmatic individual who could bowl four long hops in an over and then come up with that one unplayable googly. Chandra single-handedly won tests at the Oval and the Eden Gardens against England and West Indies, with one inspired spell. Sehwag would do that with his bat.

Among batsmen across the world, there have been a few who were similarly impactful, none more so than Vivian Richards, the man he is most often compared with. But at the top of the order, Sehwag had no peers. Openers are configured to set up games, to see off the threat of the new ball, grind it out at least till midday, when the flashy middle order can then come in and play their shots. Gavaskar did that for years, laying the platform for Gundappa Vishwanath to indulge in his flashy square cuts and on-drives. Think of openers and the names that spring to mind are bloody-minded men like Geoffrey Boycott and Mike Atherton.

Which is why when the 50-over game grew in stature, most teams turned to their middle-order specialists to open the innings—Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly for India, Mark Waugh for Australia, Sanath Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka. To Sehwag, the speed at which the ball was being delivered made little difference. He was also one of those rare Indian openers, besides Gavaskar, who countered the moving ball effectively, though admittedly with a lower rate of success than the Little Master. He negotiated the corridor of uncertainty by the sheer certainty of where he would hit the ball. Much has been made of his “see ball, hit ball" philosophy but that does some disservice to the man. He kept it simple, yes, but it was not the simplicity emerging out of passivity, but a well-constructed approach to batting at the top of the order when the ball is likely to jag around.

Under such circumstances, Sehwag, trained as a middle-order batsman, figured the best way to bat was to keep the head absolutely still and watch the ball closely. With his superb sense of timing and a great eye, he was able to convert this into a successful opening strategy, much like Majid Khan did for Pakistan nearly 40 years ago. It may have differed from the classical school of opening, as exemplified by masters like Gavaskar, but then Sehwag was leading a batting counter-culture.

Says Akash Chopra, a former Delhi batsman and cricket commentator, who knows a thing or two about opening the batting: “He was a disruptor in every sense of the word. I remember, when he first came into the Delhi Ranji team, he totally disrupted or destroyed the junior-senior divide. We were taught to respect our seniors, but not Viru. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but he was who he was. For example, in the dressing room, if Ajay Sharma’s seat was lying vacant, he would take it." Ajay Sharma was the Delhi captain.

Sehwag had a precedent in India. Before the boy from Najafgarh became the scourge of opening bowlers worldwide, there was the flashing blade of Krishnamachari Srikkanth. But Srikkanth lacked consistency and seemed satisfied with too little (an average of 29.88 and just two centuries in 43 tests).

To understand what Sehwag did with his bat, take a look at his strike rate of 82 over 180 test innings. In the elite list of batsmen with more than 8,000 test runs, that is at the very top. If other batsmen, too, scored at that rate, it would add up to 442 runs in a normal 90-over day. In the past 15 years, there have been only 13 days of test cricket when more than 442 runs have been scored.

That he holds the record for the fastest triple hundred (off 278 balls) against South Africa in Chennai in March 2008 should come as no surprise. That he could consistently get to those big scores despite the high-risk element in his batting is.

Indeed, such a strike rate over 104 tests at an average of nearly 50 shows real talent. For contrast, look at the numbers for that other dashing opener, Chris Gayle: almost the same number of tests (103) for 7,214 runs at an average of 42.18 and a strike rate of 60.26! Even in one-dayers, the Achilles heel in Sehwag’s career, his strike rate of 104 tops Gayle’s 85.11 by a yard. His vers d’occasion, that double hundred against the West Indies in a one-dayer at Indore in December 2011, came off 140 balls.

Most mavericks sizzle in patches and briefly. A batsman like this who took so many risks while batting would be expected to deliver cameos, punctuated by a few big scores. With Sehwag, that’s another piece of conventional logic thrown out of the window. A streak of 10 centuries when he went on beyond 150, two triples (the same number as Don Bradman and Brian Lara), and four doubles, prove his resilience, ability to concentrate and how he actually got better as the innings progressed. That’s what separated him from many of the other openers who partnered him in the course of his test journeys. With the notable exception of Gautam Gambhir, none could master the art of converting starts into large scores. Most fell by the wayside when form or luck deserted them. As any batsman knows, when you are in the runs, you need to score big to provide a cushion for those dry days when the selectors are looking askance at your struggles.

The added benefit of Sehwag’s big scores for Team India was that he would then be around for the second new ball as well; and being well set would see off its threat much more comfortably than a newer batsman might.

Rumour has it that Sehwag hummed a tune between deliveries. His nonchalance was for everyone to see. If he got out to a poor shot or for a low score, there was none of the self-flagellation one sees among current batsmen, who make it seem like they are not meant to be out ever and if they do, the bowler can’t be responsible for it. Says Nehra, “What’s special about Viru is that he doesn’t change as a player under pressure. He doesn’t let the pressure affect him. It doesn’t matter if he’s scored three consecutive hundreds or three consecutive ducks. He keeps it simple, and doesn’t change."

When he got to a major milestone, there was never the kind of over-the-top celebration you see from India’s current crop of young turks; just a quiet doff of the bat to the dressing room, a look heavenwards and the broad smile of a man who is happy. Sehwag never had any points to prove to anyone, nor was there any overt defiance about these events. After he came back from being dropped, his big hundred against the Aussies in 2011 wasn’t an occasion to remind the selectors of the error of their ways in the dramatic way that, say, a Nasser Hussein did at Lord’s in 2002. It was a big moment for Sehwag: a fifth-day wicket, little support at the other end (the next highest score was Dhoni’s 20), his own poor record in the fourth innings, in which he averaged below 30, and India in some danger of losing. He ground out 151 of the 269 runs India scored that day, surely a perfect riposte for the selectors who dropped him a year ago. Yet, all we saw was a clenched fist, a wave to his team mates and a hug with the batsman at the other end. Perhaps, the phlegmatic attitude came from not taking himself too seriously. Akash Chopra, who partnered him on that memorable Australia odyssey in the 2004 series, remembers a Ranji Trophy game at a time when Sehwag wasn’t in great form.

With Delhi chasing 50 to win in the fourth innings against Maharashtra, Viru warned him: “Khud karke aao yeh pachaas run. Meri batting aayi, toh pachaas bhi nahin bana payenge." (Get the runs yourself. If I have to bat, we won’t get even 50.)

Remarkably, the Fab Five of Indian cricket embodied in their game the spirit of the city where they had earned their spurs. Sachin Tendulkar’s technical proficiency was all that Mumbai was known for while Rahul Dravid’s correctness was the essence of a Bangalore, albeit of a bygone era. V.V.S. Laxman’s elegance brought to mind Hyderabad, the city of the nawabs, while Sourav Ganguly’s flawed grace captured Kolkata’s spirit quite precisely.

Sehwag, in that sense, was all Delhi—he learnt to scrap early, cared two hoots for the purists and was more interested in the destination than how he got there. He was the earthy Delhiite, comfortable in his skin, and hell bent on enjoying himself. But the city also taught Sehwag camaraderie and the Punjabi sense of loyalty. So, when he played, it was with an eye to making life just that much easier for his teammates. Following him in the order was Dravid, a man who would take his time to play himself in, and accompanying him at least for the first few years were a string of strugglers, fighting for their place in the team. So, Sehwag scored for them, too; by keeping the scoreboard moving, he took the pressure off his partners and also those who followed. Says Chopra, “Viru made batting easier for his partner. While all the focus was on him, it was easy for someone like me to slip under the radar."

Often, by the time Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly walked in to bat, the new ball had been scuffed, the opponent’s lead bowlers tamed. Vitally, the innings had its much-needed momentum and his teammates, watching from the balcony, the self-belief. Which is when they could go out and chase 386 in four sessions against England in December 2008, and in the end, do it on a canter. Which is also why a Chennai crowd in 2004 could fancy an Indian win chasing 229 runs on Day 5 after just three overs on the fourth evening of the match, all because they had just seen Sehwag spank Glenn McGrath for three fours. It was that impact thing again.

Sehwag will never make it to the pantheon of greats, no matter what his first test captain Ganguly might say. There are too many gaps in his achievement chart for that. But whenever a list is made of players who changed the way cricket is played, Sehwag will be there, along with the likes of Shane Warne or Sanath Jayasuriya or Jeff Thomson. These are the geniuses who kept the spark of creativity burning in the game every time it has been threatened with fatigue and sameness. They drew the crowds to the stadium and sent TV viewers scrambling for their remotes. After the dark days of match-fixing at the turn of the century, Indian cricket needed the level heads of Ganguly, Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Laxman and Dravid. But, equally, it needed the buccaneering spirit of Sehwag. Derek Pringle, in a December 2009 essay for The Telegraph, called him “the Errol Flynn of batting", a compliment to his swashbuckling style, though he never shared the Aussie actor’s reputation for the seamier aspects of life. But for 14 years since he made his international debut at Bloemfontein in November 2001, Sehwag lit up lives with his incandescence, in the process leaving his stamp on the game. Young batsmen dreaming of opening the batting for their countries have an alternative school of batting to follow. It is called the Sehwag way.

Venkat Ananth contributed to this story.

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