'Hit the ball, enjoy the sound'
If it were possible, Virender Sehwag would have gone from 94 Tests to 100 in one match. That's what he usually wants to do once he reaches 94 in a Test innings. Even if it means risking getting stumped on 99 to a debutant spinner. If he had hit a six of caps when 94 not out, Sehwag fans - and I am one of them - would have been able to stop facts from coming in the way of a good story.
Those facts that were driven home during his struggles in Australia. Hard as you tried, you couldn't live in denial and shrug it off by saying, "That's the way he plays." There, he even tried to buckle down for the team's good but was simply not good enough. Against the moving, bouncing new ball, his minimal footwork proved inadequate. The bowlers no longer feared bowling to him, especially if they could get it to rise rib high or move after pitching. With every confused dismissal, Sehwag reminded you he had gone from Adelaide to Adelaide without a century outside Asia in four years.
During the same period, though, Sehwag delighted with his dominance in Asia. He scored his second triple-century, in Chennai, plundered 293 of the most delightful runs in Mumbai, 201 of the most difficult ones in Galle, and even Usain-Bolted the record for the highest score in ODIs, a format he has never quite mastered. On numerous other occasions Sehwag stole results from the jaws of draws through his strike-rate in India's first innings. Often he targeted the best bowlers in the opposition so hard he practically eliminated them. To overlook this impact will be to stop facts from coming in the way of a depressing story.
The Sehwag story is anything but depressing. It is, for the most part, one of unabashed joy, of lack of inhibition, of a reminder that nine fielders can cover only so much of the field, of redefining good and bad balls, of playing scarcely believable shots with a bat only whose inside edge is visible to the bowler, of daring left-arm spinners to give up negative tactics with the promise that he will hit them for a six off the first ball they bowl from round the stumps, of pulling through mid-off to counter deep-square fields and short and wide bowling and later saying he can't play boring cricket, of failing when trying to go from 195 to 201 in one hit but still trying it in future at 295, of a reminder that cricket is just a sport after all.
You might look at Sehwag struggling in certain conditions - for just four of his 12 years, lest it be forgotten - and flourishing in certain others (you just can't ignore the number of big centuries he has scored at that strike rate) and call him a product of his times. You couldn't be more wrong.
Sehwag is not a product of his time; his times are a product of him. That's one box ticked for sure on the greatness list. He didn't just redefine opening in Tests, he did so without being an opener by training. You see openers - Watson, Gayle, Dilshan, Warner - trying to intimidate bowlers today. Sehwag started it. And he started it when asked to open the innings because the Indian middle order, his preferred station, was too packed. He gave meaning to the vague term "staying beside the line of the ball". To do it once in a while is okay, but you don't do it with his alarming regularity by fluke. He has scored six centuries at more than a run a ball, and taken three of them past 250. Three of the five fastest double-centuries, and five of the top 10, belong to him. He has done it not through brute strength, but through delightful manipulation of fields.
Sehwag batted as if meditating. "You just react to the ball," he once told me. "If the ball is there to be hit, you just hit it. Don't worry that this is a Test or one-dayer or T20. You just hit it. Because it's your routine. Every time you practise in the nets, you just go and see the ball and hit the ball. You are not worried about 'what if I get out'. You are not worried about a four or a sixer, one or two. You just hit the ball. And enjoy the sound. At the end of the day if you hit the ball or defend the ball, you love the sound that comes when the ball hits the bat."
Sehwag had me by then. As if enlightened, I added: "And that sound won't come when you are leaving the ball…" Like an arithmetic teacher who had just shown me how to add two and two, he smiled benevolently and said: "Exactly."
How simple life would have been if the man who brought us batting nirvana didn't frustrate us so. If he hadn't picked the IPL over Tests in the West Indies and England. This was Dylan gone electric. Perhaps Sehwag thought he could fit it all in. Perhaps he thought he could get the best of both worlds: take the IPL money, play Tests in England and give the West Indies a miss. Perhaps he did become a product of his time after all. He is no god, he is human like all of us. If he did pick money over Tests, perhaps he should be allowed to make all the money he wants. "Don't worry this is Test or one-day or T20," he said, remember?
When it comes to judging greatness, though, history won't be as kind. It will tell you Sehwag had one good tour each of Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, and followed them up with a bad one to each of those countries. He is a man who made a mockery of statistics but will not be allowed to hide behind them, behind that average of 51 after 99 Tests.
We, though, will rate him by his impact, by his innovation, by his entertainment. Sehwag has brought us all of that, except only in certain conditions over the last third of his career. On the eve of his 100th Test appearance, do we let that last third outside Asia cloud our view of Sehwag? Or do we look beyond the immediate and revel in all the joy he has brought us over the rest of his career? Or do we see his hundred in his 99th Test as yet more proof of his positive attitude, that he can come back from all that and start stealing results from the jaws of draws as if nothing was amiss?
We know what Sehwag would do. Take a deep breath, sing a tune to himself, try to clear his mind of all thoughts, and just see the next ball and hit it. And enjoy the sound.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo