Saturday, April 18, 2009

Unconventional genius

Wisden, which selected Virender Sehwag as Leading Player of 2008, has described him as a genius who has confounded conventional wisdom and whose daring makes him one of the most exciting openers in the world. M. S. Unnikrishnan takes a look at the highs and lows of his cricketing career

THOUGH his style makes the purists frown, Virender Sehwag has redefined the dynamics of batting with his unorthodox stroke play. The "Nawab of Najafgarh", as Sehwag is popularly known, remains unfazed by all the criticism; as he believes that so long as his batting serves the cause of the team, the end justifies the means.

Sehwag’s unconventional batting may appear dangerous in the opener’s slot as his early exit can cause a virtual catastrophe for the batting lineup. But this "reckless" batting has been his strength, because when Veeru launches into a furious assault against all types of bowling, he can put the rival bowlers on the backfoot, and give Team India a head start.

It was the then captain Saurav Ganguly, who realised Sehwag’s potential and gave him the opener’s slot, as Ganguly wanted someone who could quicken the scoring rate with a daring assault on the opposite side’s bowling right from the outset.

Sehwag is one of the few Indian players who could be relied upon whether with a bat or a ball. With his left-arm spin he has taken 29 Test and 87 ODI wickets
Sehwag is one of the few Indian players who could be relied upon whether with a bat or a ball. With his left-arm spin he has taken 29 Test and 87 ODI wickets

Ganguly believed that Sehwag’s natural aggression as a batsman was the kind of stroke play India needed to forge a rollicking opening partnership. So he was promoted to the top of the batting order from the middle order. Ganguly’s cricketing acumen has been the gain of Indian cricket as the right-hand, left-hand combination of Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir is now turning into something like a fairytale opening pair.

Sehwag’s aggregate of 5,757 runs in 69 Tests, including two triple centuries, bears testimony to the way in which he has carried his bat like a sledgehammer to pummel the bowling attack of any cricket team in the world. It is, thus, no surprise that the Wisden Cricket Almanac named Sehwag as the Leading Player of 2008, describing him in superlative terms: "A marvel of modern times...a genius who has confounded conventional wisdom, whose daring is now part of cricket folklore...the most exciting opener in the world".

Sehwag had begun as an orthodox player in the mould of Sachin Tendulkar, his childhood idol, in the middle order, but along the way, he cast away his cautious approach to become an attacking player whose batting pyrotechnics can electrify the atmosphere as the game of only a very few players can.

His leaden footwork, his weakness for playing on the legside, hitting the bouncers and his tendency to strike the ball in the air and risk dismissal, used to hamper his batting. But now he seems to have overcome some of these flaws, though critics still lambast him for his expansive stroke play.

The Wisden award loudly proclaims Sehwag’s class, as he is the first Indian cricketer to get the honour, and only the sixth overall, since the inception of the award in 2004. The previous winners have been Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Andrew Flintoff, Muthiah Muralitharan and Jacques Kallis.

But the Delhi Daredevils captain and the Indian vice-captain is quite used to awards and rewards hence he’s not overly excited about the Wisden honour.

He has accumulated three Man of the Series and seven Man of the Match awards in Tests, and one Man of the series and 17 Man of the Match awards in one-day internationals (ODIs), so his bag is full.

"Playing for the country is the greatest honour for me. I concentrate on what I can do," he had said in Delhi recently.

The 30-year-old Delhi player, who made his ODI debut in 1999 and Test debut in 2001, holds multiple records — especially of hitting the highest Test score of 319 by an Indian out of which 300 of the runs came off 278 balls against South Africa in Chennai last year.

He is one of the only three batsmen to have scored two triple centuries in Tests. In March 2009, he became the first Indian to crack an ODI century off just 60 balls against New Zealand, which seems to be his favourite whipping target as five of Sehwag’s 11 ODI centuries have come against the Antipodeans.

Though Sehwag has now become an inseparable part of Team India, there was a time, not so long ago, when he looked at the end of his tether. In October 2005, Sehwag was made the vice-captain under Rahul Dravid, when he ran into a numbing slump in form, which forced him to abdicate the vice-captaincy to VVS Laxman. In January 2007, he was dropped from the ODI and later from the Test team.

As vice-captain, Sehwag was also being seen as the future Indian captain, after he led the country in one Test and two ODIs following an injury to Dravid. But a gradual dip in his batting form put Sehwag in the wilderness for a year. Sehwag staged a forceful comeback during the Australian tour in 2008 when ODI captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni put him in the playing eleven. He has not looked back since. He reclaimed the vice-captaincy of both the Test and ODI teams when Dhoni took the top job as well following the sudden retirement of incumbent Anil Kumble after the Delhi Test against South Africa.

In November 2001, Sehwag was involved in a controversy in the second Test against South Africa at St George’s Park (Port Elizabeth) when he was given a one-Test ban for excessive appealing by the International Cricket Council (ICC) match referee Mike Denness. The severity of the ban forced the Board of Control for Cricket in India to call off the tour unless Mike Denness was removed as match referee, with the ICC backing Denness and the South African Cricket Board rooting for India. Denness was not allowed to enter the stadium on the first day of the third Test and the ICC ruled that the Test was "unofficial" and just a "friendly five-day match". The series was eventually declared as a two-Test series, and South Africa as 1-0 winners.

Sehwag is such a daredevil batsmen that in 69 Tests, he has cracked 15 centuries, including two triple tons, and taken 29 wickets with his left-arm spin. On 11 occasions, he converted 100s into 150-plus scores, to have a total of 5,757 Test runs. In 205 ODIs, he has scored 6,592 runs with 11 centuries, and taken 87 wickets. His match-saving second innings 151 against Australia at Adelaide during the 2008 Border-Gavaskar series, and a match-winning 92 in trying conditions at Nagpur against South Africa last year, consolidated his image as a player who could be relied upon to ease the Indian team out of despairing moments.

Out of his five double centuries, the first three were scored against Pakistan. Former Australian captain Greg Chappel is the only other player to have scored multiple Test tons against Pakistan. His hand and-eye coordination makes up for his slack footwork. His batting is such a treat that fans go gaga when Sehwag gets going.