November 21, 2012

The pragmatic art of Virender Sehwag

He has reached an understanding with his own flaws, refused to compromise his strengths, and stayed true to himself

The conventional definition of mental strength is much too narrow. Mental strength is not only about guts and determination, sacrifice and suffering. It is also about holding your nerve, about protecting your self-belief under criticism. It is about saying: "I know what works for me. Sometimes my style of play will look terrible. But over time, I will deliver. And I won't become like everyone else just to avoid criticism." That takes real guts, too. In fact, the justified refusal to compromise your strengths is the ultimate form of mental strength.

By that measure, Virender Sehwag has exceptional mental strength. As he approaches his 100th Test match, we will hear a lot about Sehwag's remarkable hand-eye coordination, his natural ball-striking, his gift of timing and power. But those strengths needed to be nurtured, to be protected from the many voices that demanded that Sehwag curb his natural instincts and play a different way. Sehwag mastered one of the hardest tricks in sport: he reached an accommodation with his own flaws. He recognised that he could not iron out his weaknesses without losing his voice. In simple terms, he stayed true to himself. The whole game is much richer because he did just that.

I first watched Sehwag when Kent played India in 2002. Even then, there was a lot of talk about what he couldn't do - that he couldn't resist going for his shots, that he got out too easily, that he didn't adapt. I noticed something different. It wasn't the way he hit the bad balls for four. It was the way he dispatched the good ones. The bowlers ran up and bowled on a length; Sehwag then drove those length balls for four, all along the ground, with very little apparent risk. Not many players can do that. It was a pattern that would be repeated for 100 Tests.

If Sehwag's mental resilience is underestimated, so is his technique - at least certain strands of his technique. What struck me that day in 2002 was the purity of his bat swing, how squarely the bat face met the ball on impact. And how often he middled the ball.

Isn't that, surely, a central component of a "good technique"? Yes, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar developed more sophisticated techniques that could adapt to difficult pitches. And adaptability, of course, is the ultimate gauge of the ideal all-round technique. But in terms of a technique that makes the best possible contact with a ball flying in a straight line at 85mph, I do not think I've seen a better one than Sehwag's. God-given talent alone - a good eye and fast hands - will not allow you to hit that many balls for four.

Cricket has long misunderstood technique. For too long, the word has been wrongly linked to obduracy and self-denial. Technique is simply a set of skills that allows you to respond to the challenges of your sport. It is as much about attacking options as watertight defence. It is Lionel Messi's exceptional technique, his control of the ball, that allows him to play with such flair for Barcelona. It is Roger Federer's basic technique that allows him to play such a dazzling array of shots from any part of the tennis court.

So it is with Sehwag. It is his technical mastery of attacking shots that puts extraordinary pressure on the bowler. I remember hearing from Stuart Clark when Australia were about to play the Rest of the World XI in 2005. "Just had a bowlers' meeting," Clark explained, "the area of the pitch we're supposed to land it on against Sehwag is about two millimetres by two millimetres!" A fraction full: expect to be driven for four. A fraction short: expect to be punched off the back foot for four.

Sehwag takes boundary hitting very seriously. It is a skill borne of deep attention to detail: you don't become so good at something without loving it. Many great batsmen sit in the dressing room talking about how the players in the middle are missing out on singles. Sehwag, apparently, pipes up when someone misses an attacking opportunity. "He missed a four!" he will say regretfully.

In terms of a technique that makes the best possible contact with a ball flying in a straight line at 85mph, I do not think I've seen a better one than Sehwag's. God-given talent alone will not allow you to hit that many balls for four

He also knows which bowlers to target. Aakash Chopra recalls how ruthlessly Sehwag seized on the most vulnerable bowler. He knew exactly which bowlers he could destroy. That takes intelligence as well as self-awareness. And it is a huge benefit to the team. A batsman who can "knock out" one of the opposition's bowlers changes the whole balance of the match. If one bowler effectively cannot bowl when Sehwag is at the wicket, then the others tire much more quickly.

Like all great players, Sehwag developed a game that suited him. Dravid once told me that Brian Lara and Tendulkar were so talented that they could regularly score Test hundreds in three or four hours. But Dravid felt he had to be prepared to bat for more like five or six hours for his hundreds. Quite simply, in order to score as heavily as Lara and Tendulkar, Dravid thought he had to bat for more balls. Every batsman has to face up to a version of that calculation: what is my natural tempo, what is the appropriate amount of risk for my game?

But there are two sides to that equation. First, there is time. Secondly, there is run rate. Dravid calculated that he possessed the defensive technique and psychological skills to spend more time in the middle than most great players. So he would compromise on run rate and extend his occupation of the crease.

Sehwag asked the same question but reached the opposite conclusion. Instead of facing more balls, how about scoring more runs off the balls that he did face? Sehwag's judgement of his own game, just like Dravid's, has been fully vindicated by his record. Here is the crucial point. Sehwag's approach is not "reckless" or "naïve". It is deeply pragmatic.

Steve Waugh said that Sehwag is the ultimate "KISS" player: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But that is easier said than done. After a series of nicks to the slips, it would have been tempting for Sehwag completely to remodel his technique. But he had the courage to stick to his method and the conviction that when he got back on a pitch that suited him, he would make it pay. After a sparkling hundred in his 99th Test, Sehwag now reaches another century. He is looking to be proved right yet again.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • p on November 23, 2012, 3:46 GMT

    Truly excellent article.

  • Cricket on November 22, 2012, 18:32 GMT

    @ harshthakor Sehwag cannot be compared to Sir Viv in any way. Sir Viv was a leader of men and earned respect of his teammates and opponents, he played on truly green top, chose not to wear a helmet and kept himself in good shape. Sehwag is over-rated, a product of the media and flat wickets and too much ghee

  • Amar on November 22, 2012, 18:26 GMT

    "In Chennai against Australia in 2004, I think, he scored 150 odd in the first innings against among Magrath, Gillespie and Warne. India needed about 210 to win the game with one day and a session. Sehwag had hit 4 fours and India had reached around 20 for no loss when the rains came and the match was washed off." till today i feel for that match india lost series 2-1, if that match would have played with 10 wicket in hand and 210 to make in 90 overs, we could have draw the series and trophy would would be with India

  • vishnu on November 22, 2012, 17:15 GMT

    if we try to think without much complications, on any day, on any surface, the opposition will be happy to play a side without sehwag. i.e., a player making an impact even before the start of a match. this has been the case for last 10 years. and, on the contrary, sehwag on anyday is eager to take on any opposition, anywhere. and for me that is greatness and that is why some players stand out.

  • Ajay on November 22, 2012, 16:33 GMT

    Brilliant article! How do you save a Cricinfo article? I would like to refresh my memory few years from now when Sehwag retires about the impact he had for Team India.

  • Bhaskar on November 22, 2012, 13:36 GMT

    I would always rate Sehwag way above Viv richards is because Viv was in world No. 1 team, other teams were like minnows when WI ruled, other bowlers were less capable to take wickets, Viv destroyed them but India always had a poor bowling attack, Viru would only practice with these low quality bowlers in nets but still dominated many attacks worldwide. Viru also has better strike rate than Viv, Gilly, Jayasuriya in tests but also averages 51 which is more than all above. Sehwag is the only match winner in Indian team, others are good triers but not like Sehwag.

  • mo on November 22, 2012, 13:23 GMT

    the following are facts which do not support the "flat track bully" assertion... sehwag scored a century in his very first test inning [on test debut] in SA at blomfontein on a fast track with IND reeling at 68 for 4 when he walked in! sehwag mauled ENG at lords in his first test inning as opener (he made 84). he scored 195 before tea at the MCG against oz. he averages 47 in oz with 2 tons (!!!) and has a ton each in ENG, SA and WI... now let us compare this with ponting's record in the subcontinent where ponting has scored 1 ton in IND and 1 ton in SL out of a total of 23 tests against IND, SL and PAK. why is ponting such a great player and sehwag a "flat track bully"?!? at least, sehwag has more tons (6) and a better average outside the subcontinent than ponting does (2) outside his subcontinent! ...and sehwag is way more entertaining than ponting, sachin, kallis or lara!!! ...and he averages over 50 in test cricket!!! ...and he has out IND on the winning path many times in tests!!!

  • Dummy4 on November 22, 2012, 11:42 GMT

    In order to correctly assess his quality - Statsguru of Cricinfo should get the amount of runs scored by all the so called greats of all non-subcontinental teams in sub-continent pitches and compare with that of Shewag. I am sure that Shewag will be on the top of the table and will be thumping winner. In cricket the skills are not measured only of capacity to play swinging ball but also turning/spinning deliveries and also in slow tracks.

  • Varnendra on November 22, 2012, 11:39 GMT

    People expected Sehwag to do well in the last SA tour; failed. Englad tour; failed. Australian tour; failed. He is still playing because it is India. Therefore you can't say he held onto 'it' while others couldn't. An Australian wouldn't have got a chance to be in the team to prove he would do what he always did. Sehwag scored some runs in Eng, Aus and SA when he was not noticed. When the bowlers targeted him he was nothing. And a player who doesn't pull and hook sufficiently doesn't deserve praising articles like this. I am afraid Tendulkar too falls into that category.

  • Daison on November 22, 2012, 11:32 GMT

    When I dont wanna move from the TV when Sehwag is batting and when I take a toilet break when Sehwag gets out - I know many others are the same - it just tells me, right technique or wrong technique when he gets going he gets the going.

  • No featured comments at the moment.