March 8, 2013

Is there some magic left in Sehwag yet?

If he has the will to continue, and the resolve to put in the hard yards, he might yet delight us again

In many ways, it was inevitable, and yet it hits you like one of his many shots over the years. Looked at coldly, devoid of emotion and without looking at the past, Virender Sehwag's omission was predictable. The runs had dried up, the rope he had been given was long enough. But the realisation that the thrill you felt within as he walked out to bat will be absent creates a longing. Sehwag kept you on the edge of your seat, he made you look forward to the next moment. He was good for cricket and he was good for India, and we don't know if he will play for India again. He has been a mighty cricketer and he will stroll easily into a room reserved for the greats of Indian cricket. Without a doubt.

But hang on, is this starting to look like a retirement tribute? There is a part of me that wishes it isn't, and there is another that fears we may not see him again. There is much stacked against him. Over the next 24 months India visit South Africa, New Zealand and England, against each of whom he averages under 30, and Australia where fifteen months ago he scored 198 in eight innings. India play away more than they do at home in this period. Of not inconsiderable importance is the fact that among the youngsters tried out in recent times, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have all shown acceptable levels of promise and performance. Now Murali Vijay has got a big hundred too. The temptation to look at a younger man has been rendered stronger.

His chances of being picked for Mohali and Delhi would have resided in the hope that India's selectors wouldn't want to change a winning combination. I have heard that thought expressed many times and, quite frankly, have been baffled each time. It suggests that if the team is winning, it should be happy to carry along those that are not good enough anymore. No team should ever be picked on such a basis, for in the course of time everyone will then be entitled to be selected, even if they aren't delivering. Sehwag had to be picked based on his performance and not on that of the rest.

I suspect this omission is also an indicator that Sehwag will not be opening the batting in South Africa this November. If he was to, he had to be retained, but quite clearly the thinking is that the next in line must feel at home playing for India before playing an away tour. In logic, it is sound. But sadly for Sehwag, it is a tricky time to be dropped because the domestic season is over and there will be little Ranji Trophy cricket by November. To force his way back he needs games and those are not available in India.

So if it seems that the opening berth is now sealed (remember Gautam Gambhir will be in line for a comeback too), is there another option? And here the picture seems a touch rosier. Sehwag hasn't ever held back from saying that he wants a spot in the middle order. A couple of years ago, when he was in peak form, I interviewed him after he received an ESPNcricinfo Award. "Surely you accept that you are now an opener?" I asked. "No, I am No. 4…" he started. "But No. 4 is not leaving in a hurry," I said with a smile, eager to see his reaction. "No problem, I will wait." he said.

We don't know how long "No. 4" will play, for fitness will become a concern as time passes, but if for some reason Sachin Tendulkar is not on the flight to Johannesburg, India may not have a single batsman in the top six who will have played more than 20 Tests (on the assumption, of course, that Dhoni will be No. 7 on those tracks). Sehwag at No. 5, below Pujara and Kohli but above Ajinkya Rahane or Manoj Tiwary or another at No. 6, might be tempting for the selectors.

Much, of course, will depend on Sehwag's will to continue; and its translation into a rigorous fitness regime. Players like Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Michael Hussey were extraordinarily fit as 40 loomed, and VVS Laxman's great discipline and skill kept him going. Can Sehwag recall the hunger, and that extraordinary ability for hard work, again?

Age tends to dull ambition. A weary body rebels against being driven again. "The Eye of the Tiger" sounds good in the movies. But if he can summon the desire, there might still be some magic left. I'd love it to be so.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here