Sehwag sensation

Print edition : April 23, 2004

Virender Sehwag, with his unique style of batsmanship, has evolved and grown into one of the most feared attacking batsmen in contemporary cricket.

in Lahore

Virender Sehwag after reaching a double century on the first day of the first Test match between Pakistan and India in Multan on March 28.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

LABELLED a one-day cricketer when he began his career for India, Virender Sehwag is now the first Indian to crack the 300-run barrier. The story of the man from Najafgarh, one of the rustic outposts of Delhi, has been a remarkable one.

"Viru,'' as Sehwag is affectionately called by his team-mates, has with his unique style of batsmanship, evolved and grown into one of the most feared attacking batsmen in contemporary cricket.

India made history in Multan on April 1 by winning its first Test match on Pakistani soil, and Sehwag's phenomenal 375-ball 309 set up the epoch-making innings-and-52-run win. The Delhi batsman, who took flight in an ancient town of tombs, forts, Sufi saints and bustling marketplaces, dismissed Shoaib Akhtar and Co. ruthlessly to the distant corners of the lush green Multan Cricket Stadium - the pitch was brown and bald though - as he cut loose in the first Test between India and Pakistan in Pakistan in 14 years.

It was at Lord's in 2002 that Sehwag was first thrust into the opening slot in Tests, and at that time it was thought to be yet another short-term move. But he responded with an attacking 84. He went on to score 106 on a seaming pitch in Nottingham, and his rollicking journey had begun.

Sehwag himself has indicated on more than one occasion that he is more comfortable in the middle order, and it was at No. 6 that he rattled up a 105 on his Test debut in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 2001. But then the lacklustre early form of Shiv Sundar Das on the tour of England forced the team management to push him to open the innings, along with first Wasim Jaffer and then Sanjay Bangar.

Parthiv Patel, Irfan Pathan, Sehwag and V.V.S. Laxman celebrating the dismissal of Pakistan's Taufeeq Umar (not in the picture) on the third day of the first Test.-

The fact that there were no vacancies in the middle order, comprising Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly, and the keenness of the team management to include a batsman with such an awesome stroke-making ability as Sehwag in the eleven might also have prompted it to promote Sehwag in the batting order.

Talk to Sehwag about the adjustments a batsman has to make vis-a-vis the pitch and the conditions, and he will quickly tell you that they come naturally to him. There is no conscious effort on his part to make alterations to his style.

Sehwag is a natural, who relies on reflexes, instinct and timing, and has not, despite criticism, changed his methods. As was seen during his record-breaking innings in Multan, Sehwag does not really get behind the line of the pacemen.

Rather, he tends to make a movement towards the leg-stump, create more room to strike the ball on the off-side, and chooses to play beside the line of the ball, invariably sending the sphere crashing to the fence in the arc between point and cover.

This technique has its limitations and if Sehwag is tested in Test cricket with short-pitched balls around the rib-cage area, delivered by a genuinely quick right-arm paceman operating round the wicket, he could be cramped, and his scoring options cut short. However, it is never easy to sustain this mode of attack for long periods of time.

The fact that Sehwag is predominantly a back-foot player suggests that he should adjust well to pitches with bounce, and he did enjoy an outstanding series in Australia this season, with 464 runs from fours Tests at an average of 58.

Among his innings was a strokeful 195 in the Melbourne Test, in which he treated an Aussie attack, which included Brett Lee, with disdain. He repeatedly drilled holes in the field placements before being taken in the deep during the closing stages of the day.

After his heroics in Multan, Sehwag is now only the fourth batsman from the subcontinent with a triple century in Tests, the others being Hanif Mohammed, Sanath Jayasuriya and Inzamam-ul-Haq. This is a special gathering.

In fact, when Sehwag achieved the feat, he became only the 18th batsman in Test history to score 300 runs, and the first to do so in an India-Pakistan series. He is also the quickest Asian to reach a Test double century, facing only 222 balls in the process.

The advantage of having an aggressive opener cannot be understated. When Sehwag gets cracking, punishing the slightest errors in width or direction, the bowlers often switch from an aggressive mode to a defensive one, and this takes the pressure off the other batsmen. His footwork against pacemen is limited, but Sehwag is quick to explain that it works for him. Against the quickest of bowlers, he would wait on the back-foot and shrewdly use the pace of the ball; this is reflected in the number of sixes Sehwag has struck over point, with the batsman doing nothing more than providing direction to the bouncing deliveries. Not surprisingly, it was from one such stroke that Sehwag got to his hundred in Multan as Akhtar watched in dismay. Sehwag, conscious of his dismissal at the Melbourne Cricket Ground while at the doorstep of a double hundred, was extremely circumspect on 199, but he jumped past 300 by clouting off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq over mid-wicket on the second day afternoon.

Soon he raised his arms in triumph, was hugged by his illustrious non-striker and idol Sachin Tendulkar - the two were involved in a record Indian third-wicket stand of 336 - and it was a moment of great sporting splendour.

Sehwag modelled his batting, at least some of the strokes, like driving down the ground and hitting over the bowlers' head, on Tendulkar. To a simple boy growing up in Najafgarh, Tendulkar was an inspiration. Now he had made a major batting breakthrough for Indian cricket, and Tendulkar was at the other end. Later, Sehwag would say, "Having him so close when I reached the landmark was a nice feeling.''

Also applauding from the balcony was captain Sourav Ganguly, sitting out of the match with a back injury. He had backed Sehwag through the thick and the thin, had been there to guide him at critical junctures of his career, and now he had watched him play an outstanding Test innings. Stand-in captain Rahul Dravid too, as Sehwag revealed, had always encouraged him to play his natural game.

During his monumental knock, Sehwag surpassed V.V.S. Laxman's epic 281 at the Eden Gardens, the previous highest individual Test score by an Indian. Given the situation it was constructed in, the sheer quality of the effort, the depth in the Aussie attack, and the influence it had on the match and the series, Laxman's masterpiece in Kolkata will always enjoy pride of place among the immortal innings played by Indians.

So would Sunil Gavaskar's masterful 221 at the Oval in 1979, which enabled India orchestrate a stirring but ultimately futile chase in the fourth innings of the Test.

And who can leave out Rahul Dravid's wonderfully compiled 233 in Adelaide, where he was rock solid against the pace and fury of Lee and Jason Gillespie. India won its first Test in Australia after 24 years, and Dravid, with his marathon effort, had played a major role.

These were classics.

Sehwag had Matthew Hayden's world record of 380 well in sight, and had he stayed at the crease for an hour more - given the pace of his run-making - the opener would have been within striking distance of the Aussie's mark. But, he is not the kind to brood over misses; he would be happy with what he has earned. His calm exterior and rather pragmatic ways at the crease enable him to handle pressure situations well.

Though his Multan effort was not blemishless - he could have been dismissed four times during his tenure - Sehwag showed he could concentrate for long periods and progress from session to session.

The dasher has a fine Test record with 1,822 runs (before the Lahore Test) from 21 Tests at an average of 53.58, sprinkled with six three-figure knocks. He has one century each in South Africa, England and Australia.

Sehwag's away record of 54.50 is extremely healthy, and he is evolving as a batsman, going about his task with greater confidence. His repertoire on the leg-side is growing, as is clear from the rousing flicks he essays these days.

Though Sehwag's innings was a major contribution, and Tendulkar's 33rd Test century invaluable - happily from an Indian perspective, the controversy over Dravid's declaration with Tendulkar on 194 has blown over - the Indian bowlers deserve credit for bowling Pakistan out twice on a pitch where apart from an element of double bounce on the fourth day there were not many problems for the batsmen. Left-arm paceman Irfan Pathan bowled splendidly right through, pitching the ball in the right areas and seldom providing the Pakistani batsmen width. Anil Kumble, though returning from a shoulder injury and short of match practice, operated with exemplary control to run through the Pakistani second innings with six wickets.

Dravid led the side well on the field, using the non-regular bowlers well, setting attacking fields and never allowing the pressure on the Pakistani batsmen to ease. And the Indians had enough reasons to sing and dance in the end.

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