Vintage Sehwag revives old memories
The queues extended from Churchgate station on either side of the railway tracks. Most of them came dressed in yellow with a Dhoni No. 7 emblazoned on the back - it's a shirt that doesn't go out of fashion. However, the red shirts were the ones being enthusiastically picked up on the pavements. All of them, absolutely all of them, had the same text on their backs - 32, Maxwell. Inside the ground, Maxwell treated the crowd to some big shots from the practice pitch before the toss. When Kings XI Punjab were asked to bat, they all let out a shriek of excitement for Maxwell. However, by the end of the first innings, Maxwell's reds - and the rest - had been reminded of something far closer to their hearts: Virender Sehwag.
If Kings XI's winning formula was written in the form of a mathematical equation, Sehwag's presence would appear as a minor variable after the consideration of exponential effects from Glenn Maxwell and Co. Sehwag had given the team its solid starts, scored 326 runs in 15 innings in the shadows of blinding onslaughts from others. Bespectacled, restrained, unassuming, a bit dated, and reduced to a small component in Kings XI's larger designs. Did anyone care about the Sehwag factor? Probably not. Even R Ashwin, at the end of Chennai Super Kings' previous match, was only concerned about his plans for Maxwell.
Super Kings haven't played a real home game (in Chennai) this season, but on Friday, they were on home turf - the knockouts. So on Friday, if any team was going to feel the pinch of the situation, it was Kings XI. They had already faltered in Kolkata two days ago. The way the innings started - Manan Vohra struggling to get bat on ball - it certainly seemed that the occasion might be getting bigger on the in-form team. What better man then to have than Sehwag, whose game has always made mockery of that term - pressure.
His first two boundaries - one through cover and the other through point - would have excited most people 10 years ago. Not now. It's not fashionable anymore. All eyes were on Vohra instead, who did provide the first release in the fourth over with a six over long-on. The next ball, Vohra mistimed a pull, but ran three. Interestingly, it was not Vohra who made the third possible, it was Sehwag. Next ball, Sehwag arched back and guided one through the tiny gap at gully. It was that shot, the cheeky vintage Sehwag manoeuvre, that brought the attention to him.
A hat-trick of boundaries in the next over, bowled by his Delhi team-mate Ashish Nehra, had that Sehwag signature of teasing the opposition captain and his field placements. One straight, one over cover, and as the deep cover was put in place, one through gully. It was only when he reached his half-century of 21 balls that Wankhede woke up to the main show of the night. Spinners were treated as they ought to be in the Sehwag world - Ashwin was greeted with a straight six, Jadeja was similarly dispatched second ball. Sehwag's smile widened. He was having fun. After Jadeja was hit for a third six, MS Dhoni had to walk over and put his arms around his bowler's drooping shoulders. This was helpnessness. This could have been a one-dayer, a Test. This was Multan. This was Chennai. This was Brabourne all over again.
As Sehwag took his 100th run, the crowd rose on its feet and by the time he got out, the score read 211, far beyond just being a platform. The innings had launched Kings XI into the stratosphere.
Sehwag has been in the twilight of his career for quite some time now and there cannot be many such innings left in the tank. Unlike some of his other former India team-mates who have kept the desire of a comeback burning, Sehwag has appeared too casual to harbour such ambitions. He has, throughout a tough domestic season, spoken out about his hard work, but adaptability is one word that cannot be associated with Sehwag.
A lot of players from his generation turned into something else just to stretch careers, but that narrative doesn't fit well with Sehwag. Even during his worst phase, Sehwag didn't make himself last long enough to reveal his struggle.
Still, there was sadness. You knew he wasn't coming back; he didn't even show any intent to raise any hope. Were we just going to see him fade away? Sehwag's innings on Friday night didn't change anything. It just gave his followers a chance to relive his glory days and to celebrate Sehwag.
"There is one thing I was inspired by, whenever I got out early," Sehwag said after the match. "I called my son and he said, 'Papa, you are not a good player, you are not scoring runs,' so I said, 'Hold on, there are a couple of games left, so maybe I'll show you what I'm capable of.'"
The innings had painted Wankhede red - it was Sehwag's first century in India since the 117 against England in Ahmedabad in 2012. Suresh Raina played a numbing knock of 87, but his dismissal drew loud cheers. No one wanted Kings XI to lose. No one wanted Sehwag to lose. A spectator in the adjacent seat summed up the mood: "Maxwell maare to theek hai, but Sehwag maare to andar se khushi hoti hai" [If Maxwell hits it, it's fun, but if Sehwag hits it, it makes you happy from inside].
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo