The final ball of day four, at a packed Chepauk, on Anil Kumble’s birthday in October 2004. Glenn McGrath bounds in, looking to strike that psychological blow that would leave India with a restless night’s sleep. It’s a pretty decent ball as most McGrath balls are, on a goodish length just outside off. With an economy of movement that was his calling card, the batsman throws his hands at the ball, driving on the up through straight mid-off. No soon does the ball make contact with the bat than he takes a step and a half down the track, drawn forward by the momentum, then whirls around to head back to the pavilion, not even waiting to see the cherry speed across the outfield and keep its tryst with the boundary board.
There was to be no final-day dramatics in Chennai, no emotion-soaked series-levelling win, no yo-yoing of fortunes, no coming into play of the last-day surface that can throw up sensational tricks in the subcontinent even though the target was just 229 and India had rattled along to 19 without loss. The weather had the final say, with not a ball bowled. Australia must have breathed a sigh of relief. Just as they must have taken note of the statement of arrogance, intended or otherwise, that had cascaded off the Virender Sehwag willow the previous evening.
Sehwag was that kind of batsman, unique in his thinking, unparalleled in his execution, inimitable in his style and approach, unfettered in his thinking. Where others saw danger, he saw an opportunity. Where others viewed the new ball as a potent, ominous threat with the slips lying in wait, he sensed the chance to score runs – quickly – because there were so many men in catching positions that the outfield was open for exploitation. Virender Sehwag truly was one of a kind, the kind that exhilarates and excites, occasionally annoys and infuriates, but always entertains. Always.
Of the many masterstrokes that Sourav Ganguly is credited with, the decision to thrust Sehwag up to the top of the tree in Test cricket must go down as the most far-sighted and successful. Not even a century on debut in Bloemfontein, with his idol for company, could help Sehwag nail down a middle-order slot in the longer version, so the Ganguly-John Wright combo arrived at a compromise that was to change the landscape of Indian cricket for over a decade. ‘Go open the batting, Viru’, they told him. So Viru went and opened the batting, with sensational effect. Two triple-centuries, a slew of double-tons, runs made with breakneck rapidity, attractively and authoritatively and influentially.
The bat was Sehwag’s biggest and only ally, the ball a tiny irritant that only deserved the most unforgiving punishment, no matter if it was propelled at 150 kph or delivered with oodles of guile and turn and mystery and intrigue.
It is to his eternal credit that Sehwag effortlessly avoided being pigeonholed as the unpolished diamond in the most cultured of Indian batting line-ups. At No. 3, Rahul Dravid was the epitome of solidity and composure, unfairly labelled The Wall but a lot more colourful and pleasing than the inanimate vertical structure to which he was compared. At No. 4, Sachin Tendulkar was, well, Sachin Tendulkar. At No. 5, VVS Laxman enchanted and entranced with his incandescent strokeplay based around extraordinary wrists and a steely resolve that masked a cheerful, relaxed exterior. At No. 6, Ganguly was the master of the off-side. And at No. 7, Mahendra Singh Dhoni lurked as a behemoth, the six-hitting monster that was almost out of place given the sublime quartet that he was succeeding in the batting order.
Teams respected Dravid and Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly. They celebrated with gusto and abandon when any one of them was dismissed, be it for a golden duck or a magical 281. They recognised the class, ability, longevity and durability of the stylishly termed Fab Four.
But they feared Sehwag. They feared the unannounced destruction he could rain on them. They winced at the thought of his scything willow, they were tremulous at the unchecked carnage he could unleash in the bat of an eyelid. Neither conditions nor reputation or quality mattered to him, or so it seemed. The bat was Virender Sehwag’s biggest and only ally, the ball a tiny irritant that only deserved the most unforgiving punishment, no matter if it was propelled at 150 kph or delivered with oodles of guile and turn and mystery and intrigue.
As he turns a year older, wiser and one is sure wittier today, one can’t but help recall Stuart MacGill’s plaintive confession on India’s tour of Australia in 2004. Asked if Sehwag and the other batsmen could read him off the hand, he whined, “It’s almost as if they don’t really seem to care what I am bowling.”
Sehwag’s initiation to international cricket was anything but auspicious. By his own admission, he doubted if he belonged at the highest level after being beaten for pace and trapped in front, second ball, by Shoaib Akhtar on his One-Day International debut. That was on All Fools’ Day, in 1999 – Sehwag was but 20. He could have so easily succumbed to his self-doubts and reconciled to being a domestic giant. Instead, he hit the nets, squaring up to a bowling machine at Madan Lal’s academy, embracing the experience of watching the machine spit out balls without preamble, honing his skills, topping up his technique, gradually exorcising the gremlins of self-doubt before they could germinate into all-conquering demons.
The end result – 8586 Test runs in 104 appearances, an average that dipped under 50 only in the last stages of his career as his eyesight went south and his reflexes deserted him. Two triples, four more doubles, and a further eight scores between 150 and 199. All this, at a strike-rate of 82.23, facilitated by 1233 fours and 91 sixes in the five-day game. David Warner, the current gold standard among opening batsmen in Test cricket, scores 77.28 runs per 100 balls faced in Test cricket; Matt Hayden, the imposing presence for the last eight years of his 103-Test career, boasted a strike-rate of 60.10. Where does that leave Sehwag?
To judge Sehwag by numbers is almost an insult to what he brought to the table, though given how much significance numbers have in cricket, it is impossible not to bandy those around even when you talk about the Nawab of Najafgarh. How can you not talk about two triple-centuries in Test cricket? Especially when that band includes only three others – The Don, Brian Lara and Chris Gayle. How can you ignore a double-century in ODI cricket? Particularly when that exclusive club has only granted membership to Tendulkar, Rohit Sharma, Gayle and Martin Guptill.
But it’s the numerically less staggering knocks that embody the man. Like that bruising 83 at Chepauk in the December of 2008 late on the fourth evening. India must have eyed a nervous stutter to safety on being set 387 for victory. Sehwag single-handedly set up the waltz, dismantling Kevin Pietersen’s goggle-eyed group in just over an hour and a half, each of the 11 fours and four sixes twisting the dagger deeper into English hearts. Without Sehwag, India may not even have dreamt of the impossible.
There was more to Sehwag the international cricketer than just his jaw-dropping exploits as a Test opener, but to me, every discussion Sehwag will begin and end with that. No matter that he has a five-for in the longer format, no matter that he has stacked up 15 ODI hundreds, no matter that he has been a key member of the World T20 and World Cup-winning sides. Virender Sehwag redefined the art of batting in Test cricket, and he did with a panache that has been all Viru. As he turns a year older, wiser and one is sure wittier today, one can’t but help recall Stuart MacGill’s plaintive confession on India’s tour of Australia in 2004. Asked if Sehwag and the other batsmen could read him off the hand, he whined, “It’s almost as if they don’t really seem to care what I am bowling.” Never have fewer words deconstructed the phenomenon called Virender Sehwag.