India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 2nd day December 3, 2009

Has there ever been another like Sehwag?

S Aga
Cricket is a non-contact sport, but watching Virender Sehwag bat is as visceral an experience as watching Muhammad Ali dominate the ring in his prime

Arguments about Muttiah Muralitharan's declining effectiveness can wait for another time. This was a day instead to marvel at the magnificence of a man who defies any sort of categorisation or pigeon-holing. Cricket is a non-contact sport, but watching Virender Sehwag bat is as visceral an experience as watching Muhammad Ali dominate the ring in his prime. On Thursday afternoon, Sehwag toyed with the greatest offspinner to play the game as though he were some glorified net bowler. He might as well have been, as India overhauled Sri Lanka's total of 393 in 67.5 overs. But for back spasms that restricted him to a more mortal scoring-rate in the last half hour, Sehwag might have become only the second batsman after Sir Donald Bradman to score 300 runs in a day.

Each monumental Sehwag innings has left a trail of destruction in its wake. At the MCG in 2003, it was Stuart MacGill's turn to look like a pie-thrower as he galloped to 195 in just five hours. In Multan, Shoaib Akhtar was reduced to feeble sledges. Sehwag's response was just to compare him to a beggar. In Chennai against the best Australian side ever, he careered to 155 on a pitch where few others had managed any sort of fluency. In front of the imposing Galle Fort last year, he dictated the course of a Test with an innings that combined absolute control and appetite for destruction with admirable restraint.

Has there ever been another like him? Matthew Hayden could pillage bowlers too, but his strike-rate looks pedestrian next to Sehwag's. Adam Gilchrist scored marginally quicker but how often did he have to face the new ball? Even the King, Sir Vivian Richards, never went after bowlers with such menacing intent, day in, day out.

Traditionally, bowlers have been the game-breakers, setting up victories with inspired spells that reduce sides from positions of comfort to misery. Sehwag scores at such a clip that he can transform a game in the same way. India batted only 79 overs on the second day. Yet they already lead by 50. Even if they feel like batting right through day three, the bowlers have all the time in the world to force a result.

Thursday's tour de force brought to mind a remarkable night in Kingston when Richards' hero, Smokin' Joe Frazier, was knocked down five times in the space of two rounds by the giant-fisted George Foreman. Boxing had never seen a puncher like Foreman, just as cricket has never seen a destroyer like Sehwag.

In cricketing terms, the only apt comparison would be with Gordon Greenidge at Lord's in 1984. On the final day of that Test, England thought they were in with a more than decent chance of victory. Today, Sri Lanka must have taken the new ball feeling fairly secure. On both occasions, the illusions were rudely shattered. Greenidge cut and drove with awesome power as 342 was reeled in from just 66.1 overs. His contribution was 214 from 241 balls. Quick by any standard, but nothing outrageous for someone who is batting's answer to Usain Bolt.

And to think that India started the day with survival on their minds. Sri Lanka's 393 looked decent enough on a pitch where the ball had turned from the first session. Surely, Murali and Rangana Herath would pose serious questions and be far more of a threat than they had been in Ahmedabad and Kanpur. That was conventional wisdom. When Sehwag's batting though, such logic is just bunkum.

At Multan just over five years ago, he pretty much ended the career of one very special offspinner, Saqlain Mushtaq. Saqlain had gone into that series speaking of a surprise ball, the teesra [the third one]. After much discussion in the media box, it was decided that it was the delivery that Sehwag kept whacking over midwicket for fours and sixes.

Murali tried plenty of variations at the CCI, perhaps too many. One moment summed up the uneven nature of the contest. Sehwag was on 248 when Murali pitched one on middle stump. The response was a reverse paddle-sweep, a stroke that few could have imagined leave alone seen. As the ball sped to the rope, past where conventional slip might have stood, Murali just half-flinched and looked away.

Even as fatigue took over, the level of improvisation didn't drop. Spotting a slower one from Angelo Mathews, Sehwag quickly decided that a booming drive wasn't the answer. A deftly angled bat and the ball raced away past the vacant first-slip position. For Kumar Sangakkara, the man entrusted with the task of stopping a deluge with a teacup, that was the quintessential dilemma. When remotely attacking fields were set, Sehwag just shifted his feet and cleared the infield with an ease that bordered on contempt. When the fielders then fanned out, he was free to pick gaps at will.

Each time he went aerial, the crowd in the stands appeared to jump as high. It wasn't just bedlam though. Time after time, people turned to those standing next to them, looking bemused. Each expression said the same thing: 'Did you see THAT?'

Murali Vijay and Rahul Dravid deserve immense praise for the manner in which they managed the situation. When a man's in such prime form, you need to give him as much of the strike as possible, while making sure that you don't leave the entire run-making burden on his shoulders. Vijay played a superb innings till his little brain fade, and the manner in which he was prepared to take on even Murali said much about his state of mind.

As for Dravid, is there a more calming sight in the game than him taking guard? When not defending with the straightest of bats or watching the carnage from the other end, he played some beautiful strokes, especially in the cover-point region. No one's likely to remember them though, blinded as they were by Sehwag's dazzle.

There were a couple of near escapes at the end, with a tired heave off Murali flying to third man, and a thick outside edge off Tillakaratne Dilshan evading both Jayawardenes, Prasanna and Mahela. Those were mere dust motes on a pretty perfect picture though. By the close Sehwag had struck 40 fours and seven sixes, and taken an astonishing 78 from the 70 balls that Murali bowled to him. Only Brian Lara, back in that halycon series of 2001, treated him with such disdain. But at least then Murali was picking up wickets by the bushel at the other end.

Sehwag's energy levels are remarkable for a man who's hardly the most svelte figure in the game. This was his 12th knock in excess of 150, and the way he paces himself is exceptional. On Thursday, he didn't just have to contend with the sun beating down, but also with extreme humidity. The Arabian Sea is just a six-hit away, but instead of losing focus he only made sure that Sri Lanka lost theirs. "It's not fat," said a friend later. "It's batting muscle."

Sri Lanka were so demoralised by the end of the day that it was hard to fathom a route back into the match. When Chanaka Welegedara went off injured with Sehwag in sight of his double-century, the ball was thrown to Nuwan Kulasekara. A cut, flick, glance and midwicket-thump later, he looked ready to cry. As he walked back to his fielding position, he looked every inch the man who'd been asked to take his mate's place in solitary confinement.

Sehwag now has five of the 10 fastest double-centuries in history, including three of the first four. This though is a man utterly insouciant when it comes to such landmarks. He could well go on to obliterate Lara's record tomorrow. He certainly has a great chance to put even Bradman in the shade and score a third triple. None of those possibilities is likely to make him lose sleep though. For someone who has reduced batting to its most elemental, only the next ball matters. If it's there to be hit, regardless of whether he's on 299 or 399, he'll go for it. Which is precisely why it's such a bloody privilege to watch him play. Those that passed up a chance to come to Churchgate on Thursday would be best off reading the Mishima guide to seppuku.

Comments