March 1, 2012

A time for Sehwag to reflect and plan

The break from the Asia Cup is a chance for Virender Sehwag to look back at his game, reassess his targets and prepare for the challenges ahead

Virender Sehwag has played two World Cup finals and won one. He has been a key component of a side that stayed No. 1 in Tests for 18 months. Always a better Test batsman than in ODIs, he has played some of the most awesome knocks in Test cricket. In a matter of sessions he has changed games, and in doing so the game itself. He has made batting seem like a simple, joyful activity more than any other batsman of his era has done. Greatness has, for the last few years, seemed a slashing bat's length away.

Like the ball does in England, South Africa and Australia, the greatness has bounced and seamed away after pitching, and taken a thick edge. It is a tribute to this metaphoric thick edge that it has produced several great and wonderful innings, but Sehwag is still left with unconquered challenges he won't get to face again before the end of 2013, when India tour South Africa.

Sehwag will be 35 by then, an age that will test his hand-eye co-ordination, the soul of his batting. Already he is not a desirable fielder in ODIs - he has got great hands but his slowness can be exposed on bigger fields where twos and threes become as important as boundaries. His fitness has been suspect for about a year now. After the World Cup he delayed his shoulder surgery, played the IPL, missed the West Indies tour and turned up not ready halfway through the England tour. Towards the end of the Australia tour he has had back spasms, which have forced the selectors to rest him for the Asia Cup.

That much we know. What we also know is, had he been fit, Sehwag's place would have made for a bigger debate in the selection meeting. Why, in typically blunt fashion, he himself said of Ricky Ponting: "If you don't perform for six-seven games, get ready for the sack. So I am not surprised [Ponting has been dropped]." When Sehwag last perfomed is not more than just six-seven games ago. Apart from the failures on this tour, he has gone without a Test century outside the subcontinent for four years. In ODIs outside the subcontinent he last dazzled in Hamilton in 2008-09, and before that against Bermuda in the 2007 World Cup.

On this Australia tour Sehwag has been a bit of a batting zombie, neither a free spirit nor a buckler, somewhere in between, seemingly not sorted mentally. In Tests he scored 198 in eight innings, and 65 in five in ODIs. He is a better batsman than that, even in more testing conditions. Who knows what is going wrong. The inner game is too difficult to understand for those sitting outside. The fitness will perhaps be as big a question as the mental state. The conditions were bound to be testing, but not so overwhelming.

Out of the team now for the Asia Cup, Sehwag will have time to look back and look ahead. To possibly reassess his targets, reassess his endurance and fitness, to even see if he wants to drop down to the middle order, where he originally started his career. He will also realise greatness won't give him a second chance for the next two years. He will have to work hard to maintain the skill, the fitness, the strength, and the hunger until that time arrives. On evidence of the short stints he has had, he will do well without the added responsibility of captaincy.

The batting revival will be as much about ambition as it will be about skill. After a certain age in sport, it comes down to how badly you want something, but for Sehwag it will also mean working his game out. The revival will also have to be long-lived, long enough to face the test of the bouncing, seaming ball. There is nothing to suggest Sehwag won't have that ambition, that drive to keep pushing himself, but it won't be any easier than some of his difficult tours away from the subcontinent.

This break will help him plan that final stretch of his career, which in theory could even begin this weekend, if Australia beat Sri Lanka and give India three more possible games.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo