A vintage Sehwag innings
There are few batsmen who possess the extra gear that Virender Sehwag does. On the first morning at Green Park, he was initially circumspect, having been dropped off the third ball he faced. There was some early swing for Chanaka Welegedara and there were no wildly adventurous swipes against Angelo Mathews either. Off the first 20 balls that he faced, Sehwag made just four, leaving Gautam Gambhir to keep the scorers busy. From the first 11 overs, India made 31. Hardly slothful, but no run-riot either.
In a trice though, the mood changed. A cover drive and a crunching shot through midwicket off Mathews were a warning sign, and Sri Lankan heads would surely have dropped when he drove the same bowler down the ground twice in his next over. Eye in and feet moving, by Sehwag standards, the spinners then had no chance. In the next 30 overs, 201 runs came in a near-cascade.
Ajantha Mendis, scourge of India in a Test series last year, was thrashed for 35 from 19 balls. Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath fared little better. If not for a fine catch from Tillakaratne Dilshan, the damage would have been far greater than 417 runs. Having scored 233 from the 41.2 overs that Sehwag spent at the crease, India then managed only another 184 from 48.4 overs. Still great going by Test-match standards, but a near-crawl compared to Sehwag's pace.
It obviously helped to have Gambhir at the other end, enjoying the sort of purple patch that batsmen experience only once or twice in the careers. For most of the morning and afternoon, he matched Sehwag stroke for stroke, throttling back only once the run-rate climbed near to a run a ball.
As with most Sehwag innings, there was no dearth of the audacious. Herath was clubbed to the midwicket boundary even when he pitched well outside off stump, and Mendis found one sailing well over the man at long-on. The old cliches about giving the first hour to the bowler and battening down the hatches when in sight of an interval are all humbug as far as he's concerned.
By Sehwag's standards, the past 18 months had been lean ones. Though he never struggled to the extent that his place in the side was questioned, the big booming centuries that had marked him out as a new-ball bowler's worst nightmare were conspicuous by their absence. This was his first three-figure knock after that dazzling unbeaten 201 in Galle, though it would be foolish in the extreme to judge him by weight of hundreds alone.
There would have no dramatic final-day victory for a grieving nation to celebrate in Chennai last December if not for his breathtaking 68-ball 83 on the penultimate evening. He also contributed 90s to both Indian victories over Australia. But the defining innings, the full-day flail that had so enervated the South Africans [Chennai] and the Pakistanis [Multan and Lahore, to pick out just two] was missing.
That came as a surprise to many. Though his reputation may be that of a dasher, there have been few batsmen in the history of the game as adept as Sehwag when it comes to building on a start. Before his dismissal for 131 today, his previous 11 centuries had all been scores in excess of 150. And while the impetuous swipe at the MCG in 2003 when on 195 is still remembered by many, he plays according to the situation far more often than people give him credit for.
In that context, his match-saving innings in Adelaide just under two years ago probably has pride of place. Having just negotiated a path back into the XI, it was a big match for Sehwag. And after scoring big in the first innings, India were in real danger of defeat on the final day. But Sehwag knuckled down to play what was, for him, a sedate innings. By the time he departed, after 151 from 236 balls, the game was safe.
His strike-rate that day was 63.98, and no other figure tells you as much about the man. Consider the other aggressive opening batsmen of the age. Chris Gayle scores his runs at 57.46 per hundred balls, Andrew Strauss at 49.49. For Matthew Hayden, who loved nothing more than to dominate the bowlers, the figure was 60.10. For Graeme Smith, the number is 61.2. Sanath Jayasuriya's was 65. And Sehwag? A staggering 79.26.
To put that into perspective, just compare him to Adam Gilchrist, widely accepted as the most destructive batsman of this era. Gilchrist never had to confront early swing or seam movement, and he could often take toll of attacks demoralised by those that had gone before. Yet, his strike-rate (81.95) is only marginally better than Sehwag's.
It's too early to pass judgement on this pitch, but Sri Lanka will rue that Prasanna Jayawardene dive across first slip in the day's opening over, and also the lack of discipline from the bowlers, who bowled far too many deliveries on the batsmen's pads and wide of off stump. The gains of the Motera have been wiped out in the space of three sessions and the next four days could be one long haul to safety. They can console themselves only with the thought that they aren't the first team to suffer so at Sehwag's hands. And they certainly won't be the last.