Greatness, In The Balance

0
151
Raise a toast Dravid and Sehwag after winning a match
Raise a toast Dravid and Sehwag after winning a match

VIRENDER SEHWAG’S batting is a reminder that there are no absolute standards in sport. “They told me in the dressing room that I was hitting good balls to the boundary,” he said after his near triple century in the Mumbai Test, “but actually I was hitting only the bad balls.” The combination of innocence and ruthlessness, of self-doubt and self-awareness is unique. So is Sehwag, a player who puts so much pressure on the rules of batsmanship that they bend to his will. The standing reverse paddle he played in Mumbai had the twin virtues of inevitability and spontaneity. Once Sehwag had played it, the shot seemed the only right one; it was manufactured in his mind as he was playing it.

FABULOUS FIVE

VIRENDER SEHWAG
MATCHES*  72
RUNS  6248
HIGHEST SCORE  319
AVERAGE  52.50
STRIKE-RATE  80.41
100S  17
200S  6
300S  2
SACHIN TENDULKAR
MATCHES  162
RUNS  12970
HIGHEST SCORE  248
AVERAGE  54.73
STRIKE-RATE  NA
100S  43
200S  4
300S  0
SAURAV GANGULY
MATCHES  113
RUNS  7212
HIGHEST SCORE  239
AVERAGE  42.18
STRIKE-RATE  51.26
100S  16
200S  1
300S  0
RAHUL DRAVID
MATCHES  137
RUNS  11256
HIGHEST SCORE  270
AVERAGE  53.60
STRIKE-RATE  42.26
100S  28
200S  5
300S  0
VVS LAXMAN
MATCHES  108
RUNS  6917
HIGHEST SCORE  281
AVERAGE  45.51
STRIKE-RATE  49.01
100S  14
200S  2
300S  0

Source : howstat.com

What kind of man is this innocent assassin who has elevated batting, and thinking, to a level of such simplicity? The story that captures him best has been told often enough, but it bears repetition here. England batsman Jeremy Snape pointed out in a match where they were batting together that he was having a problem with the reverse swing. Perhaps it was the ball that was aiding it? Don’t worry, Sehwag told him, I will hit this ball out of the stadium and then they will have to find another ball. And he proceeded to do exactly that. The replacement didn’t swing as much.

This was not arrogance so much as a desire to help out a colleague. It is entirely possible that if Snape didn’t have a problem, Sehwag might have merely pushed the ball for a single. Or not. After all, unpredictability is the cornerstone of his batting. As soon as the bowler thinks he has figured out Sehwag, he does something so unexpected that it is back to the drawing board again. Sehwag only needs to hear the sound the bat makes when it meets the ball to know he is on track. When he is going well it is a treat to the ears as well as to the eyes.

If his success is easily explained, so are his failures. He fails when his rhythm deserts him. And when that happens, he can look awful. Cricket is a game of inches. The bat face is only 4.25 inches at its widest part, which means that you need to miss a ball by only some two inches for an edge. From off stump to leg stump is only a matter of nine inches.

On most days none of this matters to Sehwag. He can move away from the line of the ball and swish at it, confident of two things – that he will hit it in the middle of the bat, and that he will hit it between fielders. On a bad day, the inches will begin to matter. By moving away from the line of the ball he allows it to come back into the stumps if he misses. Or rap him on the pads for a leg before.

YET, FOR all his innovative batting, Sehwag is capable of oldfashioned defence, bat and pad close together. It just happens that in his case, defence is the last resort. In cricket, big hitting and big egos go together. Vivian Richards saw his skill at pulverizing the bowling as a manifestation of the deeper anger provoked by his skin colour; Ian Botham wanted to ensure everyone realised he was king of the world. Sehwag carries no flag, he is no symbol, he stands for nothing beyond himself. The ball is there to be hit; all searches for deeper meanings are futile.

Great bowlers have one common attribute – a memory for dismissals and batsmen’s weaknesses. Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan remembers every wicket he took, and that’s nearly 800 of them in Test cricket alone. Great batsmen have this quality too. Sachin Tendulkar can reel off without a pause how he got out in any of his 162 Tests.

Sehwag has strolled into greatness from the opposite direction. He has the gift of forgetting. No mourning, no paralysis by analysis following a bad shot, or a bad innings. Sehwag is the poster boy of the here-and-now, living in the present, the past forgotten, the future not thought of. Another person might have been heart-broken after being dismissed for 293. Not Sehwag, who said he was happy he was the only batsman to make that score after two triple centuries. And in an aside that bowlers around the world will pretend not to have heard, he said there was still time for a third triple.

Family man Sehwag with wife Aarti
Family man Sehwag with wife Aarti

This worship at the altar of the present is seen in a Sehwag innings of any duration. With most batsmen it is possible to tell whether they are at the start of their innings or in the middle phase, or sometimes even if a dismissal is around the corner. Watching Sehwag it is impossible to tell whether he is batting on 25 or 250. There is the same serenity, the same inventive mindset. The same apparent air of boredom as he sets new challenges for himself. This is a disguise, of course, for no one with his record could have stumbled on it by accident. That would be an insult both to the man and to his sport.

“Don’t create new strokes,” Sachin Tendulkar once told him, “when you can so easily get runs playing the ones that already exist.”

Tendulkar was Sehwag’s hero, and continues to be. “He is the batsman I am most comfortable batting with,” Tendulkar once said, adding, “He can sense what the bowler is up to and gets ready quicker than others.” This readiness to pounce has a cat-like quality about it. The stillness is followed by minimum but decisive movement. Those who criticise his footwork fail to acknowledge his control over something more basic: balance.

Yet, for long Sehwag remained the outsider while the focus was on Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. Perhaps it was because ‘Fab Four’ is a convenient label, and there is an attraction to the allusion that is missing from, say, ‘Famous Five’. Perhaps it was because Sehwag is not as articulate, and appears even to someone like Geoff Boycott as a talented but brainless batsman. Perhaps there is a deeper reason, his Jat working-class background versus the middle-class Brahmin origin of the others.

SEHWAG HIMSELF is not given to analysis. He is a simple man with a simple objective — to score as many runs as quickly as possible. His strike-rate in Tests is 80.44; Ricky Ponting’s is 59, Brian Lara’s 60. Only Adam Gilchrist has an even more impressive 82. We don’t know what India’s legendary hitter and first captain CK Nayudu’s strike-rate was, or Vijay Hazare’s, so they tend to be judged on orthodoxy or stature in the teams they were a part of. You can’t break that down to figures, which is one reason modern players tend to appear more impressive than their predecessors.

Sehwag has been slotted alongside the girl in the nursery rhyme: when he is good he is very good; when he is bad he is horrid. This suggests an inconsistency that doesn’t sit well with those who inhabit pantheons. After his 254 in Lahore three years ago, Sehwag went 11 innings without a fifty. After his 180 in St Lucia, he had just one fifty in his next 12 innings, and after his 319 against South Africa in Chennai, he went six innings without a fifty.

Victory-sheeter Sehwag after claiming a wicket
Victory-sheeter Sehwag after claiming a wicket

There is an obviousness about Sehwag’s batting that upsets people who like complexity and mystery. However, to be simple is not to be simplistic; Sehwag makes it all look so easy that it is difficult to believe that he is the world’s most destructive batsman. So many runs without moving his feet?

The basic tenets of batsmanship involve bringing the bat down straight, getting the foot to the pitch of the ball, playing with bat and pad close together, head over the ball, driving with the elbow high, following through to complete the drive – it is a whole accordion of do’s and don’ts. Batsmen like Sehwag, and before him Sanath Jayasuriya, compressed that accordion to play a kind of music not heard from opening batsmen. Only one thing matters: balance.

There have been batsmen who followed their own rules. Garry Sobers wasn’t much of a one for footwork — his 254 for the World XI in Australia, which Don Bradman considered the finest innings played in that country, was remarkable for the scant regard for footwork for the most part. The argument then was that Sobers could get away with it because he was a genius.

INDIA’S OBSESSION with technique is probably a reflection of the English attitude. Yet this ought not to be. Just as the English spoken by Indians is more colourful and original, the cricket played by them is also unique. Sehwag brings to the game the hearty disregard for its Englishness that featured in the batting of players such as Mushtaq Ali (India’s first Test centurion abroad) and to a lesser extent Krishnamachari Srikkanth, while focussing on fewer “must-dos”.

Sehwag carries no flag, he is no symbol, He stands for nothing beyond himself

Sehwag modelled himself on Tendulkar, and there was a phase at the turn of the millennium when it was difficult to tell them apart when they were batting together. Perhaps he put on weight only to help the spectators identify him more easily.

When in 2001 Sehwag made his entry with a century on Test debut in Bloemfontein, he batted at No. 6. It wasn’t until four series later that he opened — at Lord’s, where he made the top score of 84. He made a century in the next match en route to making five of his first six centuries in five different countries and on the first day of the match.

‘I am most comfortable batting with Sehwag,’ says Tendulkar

Sehwag’s final steps to the pantheon of Indian greats have been climbed with an insouciance those inside never mustered. After 30 (Sehwag turned 31 this year), Gavaskar’s average dropped to 48, Tendulkar’s to 46. And yet, there is bound to be increasingly greater focus on him as the Tendulkars and Dravids retire. In a sense, Tendulkar has been a father figure, older only by five years but senior to Sehwag by 12. The presence of the greats in the middle order has meant that Sehwag has been allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility – rather like a pregnant woman — at the top of the order. The batsman has always had the luxury of a cushion behind him.

The final colours of his career will be painted when he is expected to provide the ballast to the batting, when he becomes both the man leading the charge as well as the lone Horatio on a crumbling bridge. Tendulkar switched roles with elan although not everyone understood his transformation from a carefree youngster to a careworn adult. It will be interesting to see how Sehwag handles the change, how heavily he allows the mantle of responsibility to rest on him.

[box]

SEHWAG’S WORLD RECORDS

Only Indian to be honoured as the
‘Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World’ for his performance in 2008

Highest score made by an Indian in Test cricket – 319

Fastest triple century in the history of international cricket – reached 300 off only 278 balls

Fastest 250 by any batsman (in 207 balls against Sri Lanka on December 3, 2009)

One of three batsmen in the world to have ever surpassed 300 twice in Test cricket

Only one to score two triple centuries and take a five-wicket innings haul

[/box]

But that is some years into the future, and already Sehwag has been at the fountainhead of change in the approach to batting. He is the post-modern opener, comfortable in all three formats of the game. In the 1980s when Barry Richards observed that batting technique was changing, he was met with howls of protest from the traditionalists, who said that technique could never change; the accordion must remain. Yet if Sehwag can stand still and deliver in the manner he does, thus conserving energy and time, why would his style not replace the coaching manual? The two ways of batting, traditionalists aver, are the right way and the wrong way. The former is a system written in stone while the latter is anything that breaks those rules.

The modern batsman feels the two ways of batting are the effective (or productive) way and the ineffective way. Fitness levels have improved; the perfect coverdrive is often easily stopped. Yet if the fielding captain is uncertain whether the batsman will drive to cover or point, or even midwicket, nothing is easily stopped. In fact, the essence of modern batting has to be its unpredictability. Bowlers can keep a technician quiet for long because he is predictable. Similar questions provoke identical responses, and the accordion, far from providing a range of sounds can get stuck playing the same notes over and over again. Sehwag has freed batting from the need to play the same tune.

He is the postmodern opener, comfortable in all three formats

And yet, one must examine the Boycott charge. Can a batsman with Sehwag’s record be called unintelligent? Other players too have suggested the same but less crudely. This is a sporting paradox. Great sportsmen often display a specific intelligence that is different from the common understanding of the word. The mind of a Pele might work in a way that perhaps that of a Mozart or an Einstein did, enabling him to do on a football field what no merely good footballer could do or even understand or predict. That did not also mean that he was a genius of the stock market or always wore matching socks.

It is Sehwag’s cricket intelligence that is remarkable, not his historic sense (he said after coming within three runs of equaling Vinoo Mankad’s world record as an opener with Pankaj Roy that he had heard of neither player) or his syntax. The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes often said that he did not fill his head with the kind of useless information that could be looked up in books, but made sure that he knew more about catching criminals than anybody else.

Sehwag can make a similar claim. He may not know who Mankad was, but he knows how to hurt the spectator in the second row behind extra cover or hit between fielders with monotonous regularity. He may not be able to break down his batting into its component parts, but he breaks down the spirit of the bowler with rare consistency.

His cricketing intelligence is remarkable, not his historic sense or syntax

HIS ROLE in the rise of India to the No. 1 spot in Test cricket has been fundamental. In the last 25 Tests (eight series), he has scored more runs than anybody else (2,093 in 20 Tests) as India beat Pakistan, drew against South Africa, beat Australia, England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka (they lost in Australia and Sri Lanka).

He has led India, been dropped from the team only to return and continue batting as before. His pace of scoring has usually given India enough time to bowl out the opposition. Against England in Chennai last year, his 83 off 68 balls set up an unlikely victory. In Melbourne he once made 195 in a day’s play and was caught on the fence. Not surprising, for this was the player who brought up his first triple century with a six – after all, the odds on getting caught remain the same whether you are on 195 or 295! This is a batsman of both courage and inspiration.

The pace also means that he is the one current player with the credentials to overhaul Brian Lara’s world record score of 400. That is, if he doesn’t do something unexpected at 395. Figures are for supermodels after all, not for opening batsmen with an attacking instinct unmatched in the modern game.

WRITER’S EMAIL
talmenon@yahoo.com

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.