Sehwag's one-day blues
A young boy's dream used to blow in the wind over the dusty lanes of Najafgarh few years ago. Virender Sehwag wanted to be like Sachin Tendulkar. Years later, that dream has become reality, with a twist. Not only has he played alongside his idol, but has now almost overshadowed him. The fans used to say that he played like Sachin, now they wish that Tendulkar would play like him.
Sehwag's personality shines through his game; his batting is a form of self-expression for this lad from the suburbs of a big city. Living in the suburbs, one goes to the big town to have fun, to enjoy oneself, loosen up, and soak in the big city atmosphere. Every time Sehwag goes to bat; it appears as if he is going to the town. But don't be fooled, his game is not just "go there and have a blast". There is a wonderful simplicity about his batsmanship which is extremely difficult to achieve and which all great batsmen want to possess.
He modelled himself on Tendulkar - his stance, his aggression, his style, and even looked like him under the helmet at the crease. Now, he has gone one step further; he has cannibalised Tendulkar. It happens in Art. A novice starts off copying his idol and if he has the spark of genius, he will slowly start cannibalising his hero.
Sehwag has done exactly that. He has appropriated elements of Sachin that he wanted, made them his own and further developed his own style. He has none of the baggage that weighs down Sachin; he doesn't have the almost-maniacal, critical self-control that accompanies the Bombay school of batsmanship. His batting too is not entirely similar to Sachin. His game depends more on eye-hand coordination. The backlift is higher; there is more of the wrist-cock (a la Lara) which results in high bat speed that brings it down in a flurry and imparts momentum to the ball at the point of contact. Sachin has almost minimal back-lift and it's the fierce punch at the point of impact that generates his momentum.
It's almost as if that variance in backlift defines the difference between the characters of the two. Sachin's is minimal, cautious, closing up any gap through which disaster might intrude, aware of his place in the history of the game and hence not letting himself go fully. On the other hand, Sehwag's is more carefree, relaxed and flowing, like the man himself.
Sehwag is at a pivotal point in his career, in possession of the vice-captaincy and a stellar Test record, but there is one thing that eludes him - consistency and excellence in ODIs. A natural striker of the ball, in theory, should be thriving in the shorter version of the game but in that odd alley, he is not alone. Michael Slater, the aggressive former Australian Test opener, had an impressive Test record averaging 42.83 but would spontaneously combust at the crease in ODIs, managing a dismal 24.07 in 42 matches.
Likewise, Sehwag's ODI average of 31.86 from 128 matches pales in comparison against the figure of 55.32 in Tests. And it's not as if one could shrug off the failure as an aberration, or even attribute it to the pressures of international cricket. Even at the domestic level, the story is repeated. In 188 limited-overs matches, Sehwag averages 31.69 as opposed to 53.95 in the first-class arena. Slater's statistics were similarly skewed.
This strange dichotomy is rather fascinating. Why does a natural striker like Sehwag flounder in an environment where he should thrive? Sehwag offered an explanation for it, saying that he had more success in Tests because he could afford to take his time, but in one day cricket he felt that he could not do the same.
In Tests, a batsman gathers his runs off a few balls and defends or leaves almost 90% of the deliveries he faces. Initially, Sehwag's ability to defend or leave that 90% was questioned and fretted about, and used as an argument against him opening in Tests. These days, he is relaxed during those quiet periods, whereas in ODIs, he becomes distinctly edgy. Dot balls irritate and suffocate him and the urge to dominate and score makes him play too aggressively. He tries to belt the hell out of the white ball rather than just stroke it.
Another crucial factor is the run-drought at the other end. Then, Sehwag feels that it's up to him to lift the team's run-rate and he goes for the extravagant and perishes. The field placings in ODIs don't help. The inner circle is ringed in and a shot which would get him a boundary in Tests is a dot ball in the shorter form of the game. Also the pressure of setting a target or chasing one, further muddles his thinking.
In Tests, his thinking is clear, mind blank, brain alert and focussed, treating each delivery as a separate event. Even if he gets beaten off a ball, he is not flustered against the next. But in ODIs, what happened the previous ball affects his next move, because of the stagnation in the scorecard. He tries to make up, tends to pre-determine his shot at the next and suffers. His thinking gets muddled and that reflects in his performance in one-day matches.
What he needs to do, with the aid of the team management, is to script a well-defined role in the one-dayers. A goal of staying there at the crease for X overs can maybe help him relax and discover the wonderful psyche that he exhibits in Tests. Maybe, being saddled with a young partner at the top has not helped things but Sehwag has shown - in Tests anyway - that he possesses a intelligent head that can hopefully address the dichotomy. It will be interesting to watch how he develops as a one-day player under the stewardship of Greg Chappell, the Indian coach who is an ardent admirer and who believes that Sehwag's batting style should not be fiddled and tinkered with. Such a vote of confidence, coming from someone who was a batting Titan, can only help the champion from Najafgarh who dared to live his improbable dream.
Sriram Veera is editorial assistant of Cricinfo