Sehwag fills specialist spinner's boots
Virender Sehwag's cavalier strokeplay masks a shrewd cricketing brain. It's an asset better revealed when he's bowling, where his offbreaks are superior to those expected of a regular part-timer. He has a classical action, gets the ball to turn, and can bowl the straighter one, but hitherto has made only guest appearances with the ball.
Sehwag's cameos have, however, played important parts in famous Indian wins. Two of his most memorable wickets are of Adam Gilchrist in Perth and Graeme Smith in Kanpur earlier this year. On both occasions the match had started to drift away from India but Sehwag, brought on to give the other bowlers a break, took classical offspinners' wickets. Both left-handers were bowled around their legs with deliveries that drifted before breaking off the pitch to hit the leg stump.
Today the circumstances demanded more than a brief spell from Sehwag. An ineffective Anil Kumble had become an injured Anil Kumble and, with Australia's confidence growing, Sehwag the part-timer answered the call in a manner befitting a specialist. He was economical (66 runs in 22 overs), he made the batsmen play, and he got the most out of a wearing pitch.
"Anil was injured, so someone had to bowl spin on this pitch," Sehwag said. "So I got an opportunity to bowl. It's not often that I bowl 20 overs in a day. I was mainly trying to contain, and if you do that, wickets generally come."
Brought on to bowl just before lunch, Sehwag looked the most dangerous spinner on show. Amit Mishra produced a few rippers, turning the legbreaks across the right-hand batsmen, but he bowled two loose balls for every unplayable one. Kumble tried to fire his deliveries into the rough outside the left-hander's off stump but his lack of variety was reflected by his figures - 0 for 53.
Four Australian batsmen scored gritty half-centuries to blunt India's attack, and it was Sehwag who managed to break three of them. Hayden, well set on 83, was hit on the pad with the arm ball that came in with the angle. Ricky Ponting's wicket was an offspinner's delight: the flighted delivery drifted and drew the batsman into the drive, before pitching and spinning through the gap between bat and pad. Facing the second new ball three overs before stumps, Michael Hussey came forward to defend one that pitched around leg stump but watched the offbreak turn past his bat and clip off stump.
Hayden testified to how effectively Sehwag made up for Kumble's absence. "He utilised the conditions as well as any other bowler," Hayden said. "He had variation, he had spin, and some of the balls he bowled would have struck Dhoni on his face if he didn't have a helmet on. That was how aggressively the ball was turning from his hand. He is not an enormous turner of the ball like Harbhajan, but in those conditions he was very challenging pretty much from ball one."
Sehwag's response to the challenge points to the depth and variety of India's attack as he bailed India out on a difficult day. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan bowled superb spells with the old ball after tea without any luck. Earlier in the day, too, Ishant had induced edges from Hayden and Ponting, who hadn't even opened his account then, but the ball passed through a sparsely populated slip cordon.
Those three wickets from Sehwag ensured Australia have not batted themselves to safety and the pace at which runs have been scored has left time for a result. The pitch is deteriorating with every delivery, which means India will fancy their chances on the final day. "The game's in the balance right now," Sehwag said. "But the way the wicket is playing, and if Anil comes back and bowls tomorrow, we can perhaps bowl them out quickly and even make them follow on."
Sehwag has reason to believe in the possibility of an Indian win for he was unplayable at times during the last session. "I think it did affect them [Australia] a lot because they didn't know which ball would spin, and which would go straight," he said. "They were playing every ball for spin.
"So if we had got one more wicket, or if the umpire had given the lbw to that Amit Mishra delivery [Shane Watson looked pretty straight against a slider from Mishra two overs before stumps], the situation would have been very different.
"I think we have every chance, whatever lead we get. For them to score 200-250 runs on the final day will not be easy," Sehwag said. "The wicket will break further, it will help spinners more. As of now the ball is not turning from the middle of the pitch, the rough is only on the edges. But on the fifth day the ball will spin from the centre too, so it won't be easy at all."
The words might sound gung-ho, coming from a team that conceded 288 for 4 on the third day, but Sehwag knows that it is his perseverance that has given India a chance to wrest the Border-Gavaskar trophy.