Who will conquer Virender Sehwag?
The Sunday Times in South Africa last week asked the freshly sacked coach, Mickey Arthur, about his life after the job. "I walked on the beach with my wife this morning," Arthur said. "We played tennis together after that … I can actually concentrate on what people are saying rather than thinking how we are going to get Virender Sehwag out."
It is instructive that Arthur should use Sehwag as the metaphor, and not, say, Sachin Tendulkar or Gautam Gambhir, who are actually more difficult to dismiss nowadays.
But Sehwag invokes fear. When he plays well, he feels sorry for the bowlers. He leaves behind destruction and debris for bowling units. Arthur's sacking has come with a positive: he won't have to worry about all that. Over the next two weeks, the rest of his mates of nearly five years won't have that luxury. Over the next two weeks, they may be thinking about how to get Sehwag out even when talking to wives and girlfriends. They have perhaps been thinking about how to get Sehwag out for two weeks now. Or longer even. Sehwag can ruin a series in two hours, and the scars those two hours leave can run deeper than two days of batting from some.
When they last came here, two of South Africa's bowlers - in fact their best bowlers - Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, were at the receiving end of Sehwag's triple century at record pace in Chennai. "Ridiculous" is how Morkel describes his initiation to India. Both Steyn and Morkel, though, draw heart from how they came back in the series to get Sehwag out for 6, 17, 8 and 22.
"Once we exploited what his biggest weaknesses were, he wasn't able to get away again after that," says Steyn. "We definitely have our game plans against somebody like him. What's happened in the past has happened in the past. It was definitely not the pitches [in Ahmedabad and Kanpur] , it was the mind frame that we got into."
Back then, Arthur acknowledged that Sehwag played his first pull shot after he reached 312. Short balls, tucking him up, and turning third man into a catcher was the plan then. But Sehwag's leg-side play has only improved since then. The flick-pull off the hip is back, so is the orthodox one through midwicket. Yet this will be a new test for Sehwag because there will be two pretty hungry men bowling consistently fast at him, an assignment he doesn't get to face everyday in international cricket.
Morkel knows it might take more than just bowling short into his body, which is mainly a restrictive ploy if the pitch doesn't afford high bounce. "We are wary about how dangerous Sehwag is up front, we definitely need to target him up front," he says. "We need to get him out really, we know how bad he can dominate attacks when he gets in."
Steyn, the leader of the attack, concurs. "I don't think you can ever contain somebody like him. Our plan is definitely not to let him get going. We have got our plans for him in every situation. We have been in every situation. We have been in a situation where we have got him out for nought, we have been in a situation where we have got him out for 300. We have basically got a plan for every run that he has got!"
Steyn's words, in a way, show how helpless Sehwag makes bowlers feel. "Sometimes he will go hard and be so aggressive that he gets himself out," Morkel says. "The main thing is to stay patient and keep on doing what you believe is right."
Another member of this team, Paul Harris, tried the containing role with Sehwag in Chennai. And again if Sehwag is still batting by the time Harris comes on to bowl, he might have to try the improbable: contain Sehwag. "If you've got fielders on the boundary and he hits over them, you can't do much about it. The field is only so big, you can't make it any wider," Harris says. "I'll probably set him pretty defensive fields depending on the wicket. If he wants to go over my fielders, and he does it well, I will shake his hand after the game and say 'well batted'. If he doesn't, there will be people there to catch him. I am not too fazed. Hopefully I will… Hopefully I won't have to bowl to him. After the seamers get him out early."
In the same Sunday Times interview, Arthur maintains that the best way to bowl to Sehwag is to tuck him up with the short stuff. That at least is clear thinking. Almost Sehwag-like. But the beauty of Sehwag is that he messes with bowlers' thought processes. A lot will depend on how clearly the South Africans think when bowling to Sehwag.
Says Steyn: "I am not giving everything away here, we still have got to play two Test matches against him. But whenever we go out to bowl in the Test match, you will obviously see what's going to be coming his way."
We'll see. In fact, can't wait to see.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo