Indian cricket is currently all about the young man whose batting is as stylishly gelled as his hair. One marvels at how quickly Virat Kohli has refocused on his game after initially taking a deep drag or two of the hedonism that comes the way of Indian cricket stars. Ever since the golden generation of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman started getting on in years, supporters of Indian cricket have anxiously awaited the arrival of possible successors. Now they are breathing somewhat easy. The hope is that injury or a swollen head does not stop Kohli from fulfilling his potential. Sunil Gavaskar was the first Indian batsman to stack up legendary records. He was the first super skyscraper of Indian batting, its Empire State Building. Then the Petronas Twin Towers of Tendulkar and Dravid rose up. You wish, for India’s sake, that Kohli now becomes the Burj Khalifa.
In this impressive skyline of Indian cricket, there stands a Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It doesn’t quite have the dimensions of the others but in terms of being radical, it has no equal. This edifice is called Virender Sehwag. And though little has gone right for Sehwag in recent times, he remains a special player, one who has left a distinct stamp on his craft.
India played their first Test match on 25 June 1932, at Lord’s, exactly 51 years before their seminal win in the World Cup. That first team itself had a radical figure—CK Nayudu. Since then, there have been quite a few like him. Mushtaq Ali, BS Chandrasekhar, Kapil Dev, K Srikkanth and Mahendra Singh Dhoni definitely redefined long-held notions. Tendulkar’s soft bearing may not lead one to think of him as a radical, but he certainly was one in the way he played his cricket, at least in the first half of his career. The bottom-hand grip, the explosive batting right from the start were proof that Tendulkar was no conformist.
But Sehwag set a new standard of radicalism, one that has lasted over a decade, and nearly 100 Test matches and 250 one-dayers. (The length and success of his career also prove that he isn’t just a flat-track badass). When he made his debut in 2001, with a century against South Africa on a pungent Bloemfontein track (What? It’s been 11 years? Where is little Shiv Sunder Das, who opened in that game?) he started as a doppelganger of Tendulkar. He too had a similar grip, preferring the solidity of the south of the handle to the flex of the north. Some of their strokes were similar too. He played square of the wicket and leaned into his drives quite like Tendulkar did. But gradually, he developed his own identity and a batting persona that was nothing like Tendulkar’s, who slowly shut out flamboyance from his game. Sehwag never did that. After his 254-ball 293 against Sri Lanka at the Brabourne Stadium in 2009, when he nearly became the first player to score three triple hundreds in Tests, he was asked if he believed players should also be entertainers. He said it depended on the situation. Asked what he saw himself as, he said, “I’m an entertainer.”
Sehwag was not a major prodigy. And when he came into the Indian side he wasn’t its sole breadwinner. Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman had already established themselves. In Tendulkar’s case, people saw him as the next Gavaskar right from the start. They expected records of him and he expected them of himself. Sehwag, on the other hand, was free of this burden. The records that he does own—like the highest individual scores for India in Tests (319) and One-dayers (219)—came in the natural course of being Virender Sehwag.
The most remarkable feature of Sehwag’s game, the one that qualifies him best for the radical tag, is his famous lack of footwork. While that may have contributed to a lot of clumsy dismissals, it also brought an ease to his game. “Get in the line of the ball and play your shot. I don’t think there is anything else that I think is more important than this,” Sehwag said about his cricketing philosophy after scoring his first triple century—the 309 against Pakistan in Multan. Sehwag showed that if the ball was in the hitting zone, all you had to do was transfer weight and connect. Yuvraj Singh also has this ability. He often hits shots that look like he might be playing golf, where there isn’t time, or the need, for footwork as long as the bat is brought down in time to hit through the ball. Modern bats, which are thicker—but not necessarily heavier due to extra drying of the wood—do allow players to get distance even on mishits.
Sehwag’s strike rate, 81.99 in Tests and 104.60 in ODIs, is equally responsible for his special place in cricket. Ricky Ponting, one of the brisker players around, has a Test strike rate of 58.76. One of the reasons for Sehwag’s busy tempo is his ability to hit fours and sixes. A common sight in Indian cricket the last decade has been Sehwag sending the ball towards the fence, ambling down the pitch with his bat held horizontally across his waist, fist-bumping his partner and returning to the crease. A few years ago, in an interview to Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, Ganguly said about Sehwag, “The best way to know how [Sehwag’s] mind works is to sit next to him in the players’ balcony when India are batting. Every few minutes he will clutch his head and yell, ‘Chauka gaya’ [missed out on a four] or ‘Chhakka gaya’... That’s how he thinks, in fours and sixes.”
There are people in sports—players, coaches, experts—who think too much and like to sound profound and there are those who like to keep it uncomplicated. Frank Rijkaard, the accomplished Dutch footballer and at one time the manager of Barcelona, once spoke of playing under Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan. Rijkaard and his famous Dutch compatriots, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, were all part of Milan in the late 1980s. All three were at their peak and Milan ruled European football. Sacchi was an intense man who loved to talk strategy. Rijkaard said that before one of the matches—if memory serves right, the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest—Sacchi talked tactics till “our heads swam.” On the pitch, the players did their own thing. Milan destroyed Steaua 4-0. Sehwag is like that. He once said of cricket pundits that they made the game sound harder than it was.
Of course, there is a thin line between keeping things simple and being irresponsible. Sehwag has on occasion been guilty of the latter, infuriating those around him. When John Wright was India coach, he was so upset with Sehwag’s approach once that he held him by the collar in the dressing room (John obviously didn’t know wrestler Sushil Kumar was from Sehwag’s neighbourhood). Sehwag isn’t changing, though. In Australia in 2003-04, he missed out on a double century in Melbourne when, on 195, he went for the big one but ended up offering a catch. Far from regretting it, he said, given a chance, he’d play the same shot again. But he has taken the advice of people like Gavaskar to at least see off the first 15 minutes of his innings and then start playing shots.
Keeping the game light and simple can be counted among Sehwag’s gifts to the art of batsmanship. He is the Elmore Leonard of cricket. Leonard’s breezy, conversational style of writing is born of his simple rule: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite.” Of course, lurking under that unfussy exterior is extensive research about his characters and the patois they speak. Sehwag’s cricket too is based on a sharp, if instinctive, reading of the game: against Sri Lanka at the Brabourne during his 293, he put to good use an unpractised reverse sweep to blunt a legside field set for him so that the bowlers couldn’t settle down.
One of Sehwag’s strengths is that he knows his limitations. For one, he is clear he cannot catch up with the man he has often been compared with. Once when starting a business venture, a friend of his wondered aloud what the need was for him to earn more money. Sehwag said it was important to secure his future. “Kaun ban sakta hai Tendulkar?” he said. He meant it wasn’t possible for anyone to last as long, so certain provisions had to be made for the years after cricket. In some ways, it is just as apt to say: “Kaun ban sakta hai Sehwag?”