Watching Sehwag bat
Outside of incompetent tailenders who average in single figures, Virender Sehwag now possesses perhaps the most original technique in contemporary international cricket. No other batsman in world cricket hangs so far back inside his crease to the quicks, waiting for the ball to come to him, and choosing to play beside rather than behind the line. Often his back foot is outside the line of leg stump - again, something more commonly seen from tailenders as they back away to leg against fast bowlers - as he meets the ball.
Sehwag's signature style means that the faster the bowler, the faster the ball speeds off the bat, as he deflects full-length balls behind point, and shorter balls over the slips and often over third man for six. And should the bowler only be no more than medium-pace, the extra split-second that Sehwag allows himself by staying back gives him the time to generate enormous power of his own, with which he treats the bowlers to a variety of flays and slaps, cuffs and punches - his own versions of the shots referred to the textbook as the drive and the cut.
This is one distinct trait of Sehwag's batting. But as many observers have remarked, Sehwag also seems to possess a mind, an approach to batting, singularly unconcerned with the things that trouble other batsmen, such as the memory of the last ball or of previous encounters with the bowler, the demands made by the state of the game, the deployment of a field inviting him to play a particular shot, or else the caution and circumspection that batsmen feel when they approach a personal landmark. Yesterday he brought up his hundred with a six off Shoaib Akhtar, and this afternoon, when on the verge of a triple-century for the first time in his career, he had no qualms about swinging Saqlain Mushtaq over the deep fielder at long-on for another six.
Sehwag has many gifts of technique and skill: a fine eye and quick general reactions, brute power (no Indian batsman has ever approached the savagery of his cutting) and at the same time beautiful "touch" on the ball - consider his first boundary on the second morning, from a full delivery on the stumps from Mohammad Sami, that he met just below his eyes and, with a turn of the wrists, sent speeding backward of square leg for four.
But it is his approach to the game - his gambler's instinct and his insouciance, the free and easy air with which he plays his slightly chancy game - that is his most charming and attractive quality, made all the more endearing because of the intense and competitive world in which he practises his craft. To me there is no stroke in the game more beautiful than a cover-drive or a flick from the bat of VVS Laxman, and yet there is no prospect as pleasurable in general as that of watching Sehwag bat. There is something irresistible about such bravado and dash, such disregard of rules of batsmanship thought to be almost sacrosanct. Even strolling about the crease between deliveries, he appears to be thinking not about the bowler changing his line of attack, or of this fielder going here and that one there, but rather of palm trees and golden beaches.
It is this very style that earned Sehwag the reputation of a "dasher" in his early days in international cricket, but there is something about that label that suggests style over substance, and also hints at a certain weakness - at faults and chinks waiting to be exposed. Sehwag has proved without doubt that he is not just a dasher. In fact, he has readily agreed to open - the position where dashers are most susceptible, against the new ball in Tests, and has responded with five centuries, each one a longer innings than the last, against five different attacks in two seasons. Not so long ago new-ball bowlers around the world used to see Indian openers in their dreams. Now they usually come running in and see the ball disappear over point off the second ball of the game.
It is also worth remembering that early on in his days in international cricket Sehwag was also called "The Tendulkar from Najafgarh", because he had consciously modelled his game on Sachin's. Indeed, at that time many of his strokes did appear to be somewhat rustic versions of those of his hero: he drove down the ground similarly, but with slightly more flourish; he cut similarly but threw himself at the ball a little more. In fact, when England toured India late in 2001, and Tendulkar and Sehwag opened the innings together for the first time in one-day internationals, commentators often mistook one for the other, especially since they are also so similar in height and build.
But over the last two years Sehwag's batting has evolved in a direction of its own, and today nobody could possibly mistake his game for Tendulkar's; he is now very much his own man. Indeed, if Tendulkar's game is unique in its perfection, in the beautifully measured backlift, immaculate footwork, and the bat offered with a lovely full face - in many respects the coaching manual personified - then Sehwag's game is a unique construction of his own conception, without an obvious precursor or model, and perhaps not even replicable by another batsman.
Watch him the next time as he walks out to bat with Aakash Chopra, lets his partner take strike, strolls around the crease at his end, eventually takes strike himself, takes a look around the field, sets down in his stance, and prepares for the bowler's approach. Watch as a full-length delivery just outside off stump, the very delivery that bowlers have aimed to bowl more often than not throughout the history of Test cricket, is met almost on the crease line and rockets through point for four.
Watch as the bowler, exasperated, aims at the stumps next ball and, at the very moment that he believes he has breached the batsman's defence, sees Sehwag flick wristily across the line and work it sweetly though midwicket. Watch a short and fast ball biffed over third man for six. Watch as the spinner comes on, with three men protecting the boundary, and Sehwag goes down easily on one knee, and with a beautiful unfettered swing of the bat, unmindful of the deep fielders, send it over their heads for six. Watch as even the infielders drop back, and Sehwag then drops the ball down at his feet and scampers a quick single. Observe the relish with he carries out his game plan, the gusto with which he sets about the bowling!
Who does not feel less afflicted by the cares of the world after watching Sehwag bat?
Chandrahas Choudhury is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.