Déjà vu for Sehwag in Adelaide
Certain places, when you go there for a second time, make you look back at what has gone by since the previous time you were there. Sometimes they give you the impression life might have come a full circle. Virender Sehwag has come back to Adelaide. Wonder if he feels his life has come a full circle now. He, though, will want it to be just half the spin.
When Sehwag last came here, he was fighting for his career. The year prior to that, 2007, had been tumultuous. He and India had failed at the World Cup. In a bizarre selection move, he went on to be dropped from the Tests and not ODIs, even though he had been doing well in the longer format. Then, just before Australia, the captain Anil Kumble insisted he wanted Sehwag. By the time India reached Adelaide, Sehwag had played one Test without great results, and was facing what was in essence a last chance. He batted for nearly six hours in the second innings, went a session without a boundary, and helped India draw the Test.
Sehwag's second coming began there. In his next Test innings he scored a triple-century, and in the series after that he single-handedly won India a Test on the horror tour of Sri Lanka. He played the innings of the year in 2009 too, pulverising Sri Lanka for 284 runs in just one day. He reached great heights during that period, and started laying genuine claims to being an all-time great.
Starting 2010 things began to go downhill again for him, but India kept performing well. They drew a series in South Africa, and won the World Cup. After that all the garbage has hit the fan. India have lost seven away Tests in a row, and the golden era of Indian cricket is almost over. Sometime during that period Sehwag delayed a shoulder surgery, played on in the IPL, missed the West Indies tour, and couldn't recover in time for the England trip. That hundred in Adelaide now seems a century ago, and Sehwag's contributions outside the subcontinent have dwindled drastically since then.
From Adelaide to Adelaide he has done nothing outside Asia. He has toured New Zealand, South Africa, England (albeit forced to play through injury during crisis there) and Australia, and doesn't have a single big innings to his name. Every other Indian first-choice top-five batsman has done something over the period. Gautam Gambhir, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar had fruitful tours of New Zealand and South Africa, and Rahul Dravid scored three centuries in England. Sehwag's lack of runs only got amplified when the middle order began to fail too.
It would be unfair to dismiss Sehwag as a subcontinent bully. In the previous cycle, he did well against the moving ball. His first century, on debut, was against a red-hot South African bowling unit in Bloemfontein. Out of his comfort zone, opening the innings, he scored runs in England and Australia. He scored runs on the New Zealand trip in 2002-03 when most batsmen on either side struggled to lay bat on ball.
The thing with Sehwag, though, is that a great innings is never too far, or it at least seems so. The opposition fears that, and his team picks him because of that. Since Adelaide 2008, though, he has just been a great frontrunner on certain kind of tracks, the utility of which can't be written off.
The usual criticism that he gets away too often with a "that's how he plays" shrug doesn't apply now. For, in Australia he has put his head down, and tried to fight through the early movement. It hasn't worked for him, though, and it has resulted in the dismissals he hates the most: the ones that come when he is defending. At least he has tried to change his game when the situation demanded it.
Perhaps you need better footwork when the bowling is accurate and the ball is moving. The ball he got in the first innings at the WACA, for example, was near unplayable, pitching leg, swinging away late, making him play. Then again, the only way to survive those is to either be lucky in missing them or to move well forward in defence.
Perhaps Sehwag could get away with just the hand-eye coordination when he was younger. Perhaps, in hindsight, he should have been used in the middle order in this series. It is a desperate move - to ask Dravid to open again so Sehwag can be utilised better in the middle order where the ball doesn't move that much - but India have been through times so desperate they could justify any desperation. Not that Dravid would have complained, and at any rate he has been an almost default opener. Strangely, though, this team has lacked the desperation - in the mind and on the field.
At this stage of his career, when he will have to be the link between the era almost over and the one that will take over, Sehwag needs more runs outside the subcontinent. That stands between Sehwag and genuine greatness. Runs inside India over the next two years won't help if he is going to struggle over the year after that, which is almost exclusively made up of cricket in testing conditions away from home. Maybe the next two years is a good time for him to drop into the middle order, something he has always wanted to do, and for India to look for another solid opener, although there are no guarantees the said new opener will be successful overseas.
Ironically, when the time is ripe to debate Sehwag's role in the side, he has come to Adelaide as the captain of the team. He will be an important part of the transition over the next two years, the leader of the batting unit when the big three are gone. The series is gone, a long period of recovery beckons, but there will be no complaints if Sehwag starts it in earnest.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo