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March 27, 2005
Virender Sehwag and Shahid Afridi; safely we can say that cricket has never known the likes of them before. It may not ever again. They turn matches in instants we know and that is not so rare. But cricket has known, and knows now, many who can do it, yet it is fitting that the chances of a decisive result were created by Afridi today and are likely to rest on Sehwag tomorrow
Yesterday, Sehwag through his very ballast tore into a daunting first innings total carrying the world's heaviest batting line-up with him and created momentum within it. And today, Afridi single-handedly created time when there seemed none. When Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman defied Pakistan for 53 runs, it wasn't so much the lead they ate into as the time. They took, potentially a crucial hour and a half from Pakistan in which to build a sizeable target. In just over an hour, he found that lost time and set up a match.
But what holds more allure than changing a game is the way they do it. Almost certainly both would have played the way they did, whatever the situation. Context is not important because they create it. When Irfan Pathan peppered Afridi with bouncers and three men patrolling the long-on, deep-midwicket and square-leg boundaries, he didn't shirk, he took him on, pulling twice for six and once for four. When Anil Kumble tried to curb the scoring by bowling a leg-stump line, Afridi didn't pad, he tried to reverse pull him, failing once and succeeding the second time. Would he do the same if Pakistan were trying to save a match? He did in Kolkata.
By expressing themselves, both regularly shun traditions in what can be a stifling sport. We look, particularly in batting, for correct techniques, of playing within certain areas with the bat at certain angles, with certain stances and grips. Sehwag and Afridi challenge this openly, they rebel against this conformity.
Sehwag in a floppy hat yesterday seemed right, for it stirred a refreshing spirit, of flexibility not rigidity, of not being confined. Leaning like a lethargic lord, with one hand on bat and other on hip, he could have been playing at club or school level, or even in a maidan. The hat, as opposed to helmet, made for a cute and apt symbol for this. Not for him is the endeavour for perfection or precision in his technique, in his strokes. He does what is necessary, get bat on ball and score runs by doing so. High left elbow, straight bat, nimble footwork, they are rendered meaningless by his brazen defiance of the essence of batting. In any case, he is gifted with admirable traits, but he doesn't strain for them, they come naturally. Simply, if the ball can be hit, it will be and if it can't, it won't. All else, how he does it, against whom he does it and in what situation he does it, this is frivolous.
Afridi is more rustic, more rudimentary but within him rests a similar approach. The very first ball he faced today was pulled for four as if playing a tape-ball midnight Ramzan tournament in Karachi. There was no lining up of the ball, of attuning to the light or the pitch. No strokes were practiced diligently between deliveries, no poses were kept. Only the ball was struck, as hard as possible with minimal concession made to technique or footwork. Here instinct is master and Afridi its slave.
If Sehwag is the more destructive and successful, it is because he has a sharpened batting nous. He wouldn't charge down the pitch as Afridi did today to lollipop tempters, but over an hour, both are equally ferocious, and often Afridi can be more so. Of course, we should treasure them because of the way they have changed this game, one that seemed consigned to a meandering, high-scoring draw from the very first day. But what we should cherish even more is the inimitable manner in which they have done it.
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