Virender Sehwag's Brave New World
You look at Virender Sehwag's Test record and stagger at the sheer impudence of it. After 28 Tests, which is not an inconsiderable number for comparison, he has a better average than Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, none of whom was sluggish off the blocks. Only Gavaskar, who had 774 runs and four hundreds in his first series, is marginally ahead in terms of centuries and number of runs scored, but it must be registered that Sehwag has played eight fewer innings.
Not that we should let statistics sway us too much - after all, Vinod Kambli has the third-best career average among Indian batsmen. But in Sehwag's case they are doubly striking because he is not the kind of batsman whose value should be weighed by records. For a batsman with such apparent disregard for self-preservation, how dare he challenge the hierarchy? Aren't players like him supposed to perish more often by the sword they wield so wantonly?
Sehwag is easily the most confounding batsman of his generation. Without doubt, he is a player of uncommon ability, but very few major Test batsmen give the appearance of fallibility as Sehwag does. His footwork is negligible till the moment he sights a spinner, and upon sighting one, he charges with the ferocity of a bull baited by a red rag, but often with the discretion of a moth. He looks distinctly insecure against the short ball aimed at his body, and every now then he flashes at outswingers as if time was running out. That such a batsman should possess eight Test hundreds, among then a triple and a near-double belted against two of the most potent bowling attacks in the world, defies conventional logic.
He might have begun with the aspirations of emulating Tendulkar, but in quick time he has dispelled the notions that he is a Tendulkar clone. Tendulkar is a largely orthodox batsman with exceptional strokemaking abilities facilitated by quick eyes and sharp footwork. Sehwag is an original with a batting science of his very own. He forces us to look outside accepted wisdom.
He has a simple logic, which is to belt the ball, as often and as fiercely as possible. But he is no Shahid Afridi or Ricardo Powell. He batting is based on principles that challenge perceptions but extend the boundaries of cricket. Unlike Sanath Jayasuriya, who possesses a similar spirit, Sehwag plays many of his strokes with a perpendicular bat, in the manner of classical strokeplayers, while away from his body. It is a contradiction of sorts, but Sehwag pulls off what can be appropriately termed skilful handwork.
The phrase "stand and deliver" might have been coined for him. Far from being an impediment, his lack of footwork is an asset, for it creates room for his wide array of strokes. He does his primary business with his hands, which manipulate the ball with a felicity that is often not noticeable because of the awe that the power behind his strokes evokes. The six he hit off Andrew Hall just after lunch on the fourth day of the first Test at Kanpur was a magnificent execution of a plan. He shares with Tendulkar - and this came from Tendulkar himself - the ability to sense what the bowler is up to, and he positioned himself perfectly for that stroke by planting his left foot wide and creating room to swing the ball over midwicket. It wasn't a shot Tendulkar would have attempted even in his pomp.
But equally skilful, but perhaps less noticeable, was the manner in which he manoeuvred the ball around through the off side when the South African bowlers were reverse-swinging it. While Rahul Dravid struggled to keep the ball out of his stumps, Sehwag found time and room to place the ball on either side of the cover fielder for easy twos.
The world has not yet known what to make of him. So outrageous is his approach to batting that he is almost a profanity to the concept of opening in Test matches. Yet, ever since became a Test opener, he has scored a hundred in every series except in New Zealand, a feat not achieved by any of his illustrious colleagues. His hundreds have come all over the world and in all conditions: on a greentop at Bloemfontein, in swinging conditions at Nottingham, on flat wickets at Multan and Mumbai, against spongy bounce at the MCG, on a turner at Chennai, and now, on a sluggish pitch at Kanpur. Not only have these been spectacular, but they have been big. The average size of a Sehwag hundred is 163, and they are all scored at a scorching pace. Opponents who have indulged him as an irascible pest for whom self-destruction was only a matter of time have been left bleeding.
We might still be searching for a definition for him, but Sehwag is no fleeting marauder or nonchalant rake. Underneath his apparent casualness lies steel and purpose, and a hunger for big runs. He is already an exceptional batsman; he could be a once-in-a-lifetime one.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India, and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.