The Last Samurai
One moment typified Virender Sehwag's buccaneering masterclass on the third day in Chennai. He had led a stunning fightback, just brought up his 100th run for the session, and was facing the final ball before the tea break. The astonishing part wasn't that Sehwag clobbered the ball past cover for four - if any batsman is expected to show such daring, it's tough to look beyond him - but the manner in which he turned around in a flash and began his walk back to the pavilion.
So furiously was the ball struck that those who didn't see it travel could have thought Sehwag was actually dismissed. Such a rapid walk back is usually the preserve of batsmen who have been dismissed bowled, turning back in frustration and fuming all the way to the dressing-room. Some batsmen might have held on to their pose on the follow-through, others could have walked towards the non-striker, and a few more might have waited for the umpires to remove the bails to signal tea. Not Sehwag, a unique batsman and a singular man.
Like most of Sehwag's hundreds, records there were aplenty. There was a third fastest double-hundred in Tests, the fastest triple hundred (since the time number of balls per innings were recorded), the highest score by an Indian, and a slew of others. But numbers will never tell the story of this once-in-a-lifetime batsman. On a sleep-inducing pitch, in searing heat, he lifted the spirits like few others. With due respect to Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla, Sehwag's was the innings that injected some life into what was turning into a dead Test. Stirring, explosive, creative and audacious, this was one for the ages. A crowd of 29,356 watched the innings today but you can be rest assured that many years later several more Chennai residents would claim that they were there.
Sehwag's strokeplay is dazzling enough, but it's the context which makes it even more thrilling. He reverse-swept two fours, the first four balls before lunch and the second when he was on 244; tried to bring up his hundred with a six, only to see the ball drop short of the cover fence; started the second session with a four; lofted Makhaya Ntini without a trace of regard when on 193; pounded two fours and a six in the last over before tea; and clattered a straight six when on 291.
|Some batsmen take into account the nature of the pitch, time of day, phase of innings, and quality of the bowler. Sehwag prefers to have only one parameter in mind: type of delivery. This was batting reduced to its simplest form|
Some batsmen take into account the nature of the pitch, time of day, phase of innings, and quality of the bowler. Sehwag prefers to have only one parameter in mind: type of delivery. This was batting reduced to its simplest form. As the Last Samurai postulates: "the highest level of martial and spiritual skill is only attainable through No Mind".
Batsmen normally talk of cashing in on featherbeds, making sure they thrive when the going is good. Sehwag doesn't seem to really care. He has often talked about not looking at a pitch before a game and rarely alters his approach according to the surface. He has taken a different approach according to match situations - his match-saving hundred in the previous Test in Adelaide showed as much - but conditions don't seem to matter. When he's as balanced at the crease as this, there's little to stop him.
In the three Tests since his Test comeback it's pretty clear that he's worked on his on-side game. His struggles at the Test level coincided with the time when he tried to back away and swat most balls to the off side but he's obviously worked on the clip to leg - the shot where he gets up on his toes and turns it towards square leg. He's brought back the hoick and has now started to again loft powerfully over cover. It's helped that he's got fitter, shedding some fat around the waist-line.
It's also interesting that the two occasions when he's consulted a mental conditioner have been followed up with brutal innings. The blistering 180 on the first day in Gros Islet came on the back of a chat with Rudi Webster, the renowned sports psychologist, and this knock was preceded by a lengthy interaction with Paddy Upton. Sehwag has often said that his one-day failures are mainly because of too many parameters coming into play - number of overs, run-rate, Powerplays and the like - and it's the Test arena that he enjoys the most.
His last ten hundreds have all been 150-plus knocks, a trot unlike any other batsman in Test history. He joined Brian Lara and Don Bradman as the only two batsmen to cross 300 twice. He may not be mentioned in the same league as those two legends - not as yet - but like them he remains a man apart.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo