The Sehwag effect
In this article, which first appeared in the April 2005 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, Rahul Bhattacharya examines the impact that Virender Sehwag's berserker pace has on his team-mates and their batting.
A year ago, in the aftermath of Multan, there waited a Virender Sehwag essay to be written. With Multan, Sehwag had racked up his sixth century in 21 Tests. They had come in five countries; in five of them he was opener; five of them came on the opening day. Moreover, all had been scored at staggering rates.
Charles Davis's pioneering research into strike-rates for Wisden Australia indicates that not since Victor Trumper in batting's 'Golden Age' a century ago had an opening batsman scored at a strike-rate approaching Sehwag's 73 per 100 balls. (And Sehwag's dismissal in the second innings at Mohali against Pakistan last month, stumped trying to smash Younis Khan's part-time lollipops on what became the last ball of a dead match, rather than protecting his average, would make the free-spirited Trumper of lore proud.) Trumper stroked his runs at between 67 and 68 per 100 balls; but he averaged 39 to Sehwag's 53. Of the modern openers, Sanath Jayasuriya's strike-rate comes closest to Sehwag's, at 65, but he averages 12 points fewer. Kris Srikkanth's rate is similar to Jayasuriya's but Srikkanth's average was less than 30. Matthew Hayden and Graeme Smith average in the same region as Sehwag, but their impressive strike-rates of 62 still rest a good 10 points lower (as on March 14, 2005).
Two large points could be made. That Sehwag is the nearest thing India has ever had to an express fast bowler. And that though Test cricket has seen a few like him, nothing quite exactly the same; and we have not even got to his technique. Trite as it may sound, and despite the early fuss about being Sachin Tendulkar's clone, the word 'original' befits Sehwag in every sense.
But this conceived essay would set itself broader sights. To establish Sehwag's true relevance, his impact, tangible and intangible, on the performance of the Indian team would be explored.
So the piece would begin at the Bangalore Test between India and England in December 2001. The background is elaborately laid out. India have just been thrashed in South Africa, following which their first five fast bowlers have been dropped for varying lengths of time. England have been hammered in the Ashes as per usual and a number of their old hands have retired or pulled out scared. Accordingly, it is a contest between two teams in fright. India win the first Test but draw the second, so the series is still alive going into the last Test.
We pick up the action with India at 121 for 5 in classic seaming conditions. They are trailing England by over 200 runs. It has taken them 55 overs to struggle up to this stage; Rahul Dravid's 3 took him 61 deliveries. Tendulkar is having a hard time of it. England have taken their attrition tactics to the brink. Andrew Flintoff is working the fast bowler's back-of-a-length leg theory. Ashley Giles is bowling over the wicket, and pinging 90 per cent of his deliveries outside leg stump. There is no pretence: the keeper, James Foster, has taken his stance a foot outside leg.
Sehwag takes guard, the fourth Test of his life. He has not played the first Test of the series, having copped the absurd ban from Mike Denness in South Africa just prior, and barely got any batting in the second. There are 45 minutes to lunch, but Sehwag in this time doesn't face a single ball from Giles. Tendulkar is at that end; he plays out four straight maidens, padding away, buttocking away. Sehwag, meanwhile, flashes and flashes and occasionally connects.
Then, after lunch, Sehwag meets Giles. At once he begins charging him. Never mind that Giles is aiming at the square-leg umpire and the game is on the line. Sehwag charges once, twice, finds fielders. He charges again, and lofts Giles into the leg side for four. In a few moments, the game is bathed in a new light.
Tendulkar, too, seems to experience some sort of revelation. He liberates himself. He leaves the crease and hits Giles over midwicket against the turn. He sweeps the next ball for four more. And in the following over he is out - stumped. Sehwag shines on. He charges Giles and carves him inside-out over cover. He charges him and slaps it over mid-on. He charges him and lofts him back over his head. He reverse-sweeps once, stinging like a cut shot. He has reduced it to a simplicity: if Giles will not bowl to me, I will bat to him. He finishes with 66 from 88 balls.
So this, Bangalore, was the starting point, Sehwag defying the template of the innings; more, his work prompting Tendulkar's little moment of liberation (though it did lead to his dismissal). This was the Sehwag effect; Sehwag the emancipator, the freer of minds. Further abstract illustrations could be found to supplement this grand and happy theory. Think that you're sitting next to Sehwag in the dressing room, and he refuses the captain's suggestion to take a night-watchman, as he once did in a domestic match, with the words, "Agar main pacchis minute nahin khel sakta toh main batsman nahin hoon." ["If I can't play for 25 minutes, I'm not much of a batsman."] Think of how that must rub off on his team-mates. For good measure, an inverse kind of proof could be tossed in. See what happened in the Caribbean in 2002 when Sehwag was missing: India had SS Das building up Cameron Cuffy and Merv Dillon where Sehwag would have pulled them down. Batting indecisiveness went a long way in costing India that series.
Then loopholes began to appear. At Lord's later in that summer of 2002, Sehwag was asked to open the batting for the first time in Tests. Apart from the warm-up match preceding that Test, Sehwag had never opened the batting in first-class cricket before, and he had never played first-class cricket in England before. And yet, in his first innings in the role, staring at a big England total, he smacked 84 from 96 balls. And after this the Indians decomposed. The last eight wickets added just 91 runs between them at a rate of 1.93 per over. While Sehwag was there the rate had been 3.76. The differential of 1.83 translated to 164 runs in a full day of Test cricket. In the second innings the Indian top order failed again and the match was lost. Where then was the Sehwag effect?
A way could be found around this anomaly. Sehwag got a brilliant century in the next Test, at Trent Bridge, on the kind of overcast English morning where the ball starts leg and finishes at first slip. And from that point on, India's middle order prospered in the series. So it could be argued: although belatedly, Sehwag's example, his fortitude, had rubbed off; he didn't himself make many in the series after that, but perhaps he had played a part in the runs of others. Sehwag, his effect is cumulative. Loophole conquered. Eureka! Such fraudulence!
A year on from Multan, with Sehwag not abating, it needs saying out loud that the above theory is piffle. Sehwag has not emancipated the Indian batting line-up. If anything, he has provided them a crutch.
It is remarkable that India should have won only two of the nine Tests in which Sehwag has made a century. Far from suggesting that Sehwag scores in dead causes, this shows instead that when India are provided it all on a silver platter - big runs at terrific pace at the start of the game - they are apt to toss it into the bin.
Since Australia are the benchmark - and in batting the Indians ought to be meeting them eye-to-eye - it is instructive to note that when Matthew Hayden makes a score (fifty or more, for the purpose of this exercise), those who follow him score marginally faster than they would do had he fallen cheaply (at a rate of 3.79 against 3.75, from September 2001 onwards). When Sehwag scores fifty or more, however, the rest of the Indian line-up make their runs discernibly slower (2.96 against 3.15, in matches where Sehwag has opened) than they otherwise would. So where Australia are taking a man's success and building on it, feeding off it - the cornerstone of their cricket in general - India are using it, bizarrely, as an occasion to play inside their abilities.
Some of India's recent post-Sehwag dawdles make damning reading. At the MCG last season, when Sehwag was fourth man out, having made 195, the run-rate plummeted by 1.75 points (or 157 runs per day). At Kanpur against South Africa this season, when he was second out, having scored 164, it dropped by 1.52 (137 runs per day). At Kolkata in the following Test it fell by 1.02 (92 runs per day) after he was gone for 88. And at Mohali most recently against Pakistan it dipped by 1.46 (131 runs per day). Of the above matches India could only win the Kolkata Test. And there too South Africa, had they shown more resolve in the second innings, could have made India regret the tardiness, as the Pakistanis did at Mohali.
It is hard to imagine the reason behind this pattern because it just doesn't make sense. Perhaps it is just that Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman have been out of form, and Tendulkar patchy. But perhaps it is not a coincidence that Tendulkar's fastest efforts this season have come in innings in which Sehwag has failed (at Mumbai against Australia, at Dhaka and Chittagong against Bangladesh, at Kolkata against Pakistan in the second innings); and that his slowest innings have overlapped with Sehwag's successes (Nagpur against Australia, Kanpur and Kolkata against South Africa, Mohali against Pakistan). Tendulkar has in recent times often expressed the sentiment that somebody else is doing his job, and that his role has changed. One could hazard a deduction that, consciously or not, he is more inclined to play an attacking role in instances where India has not received Sehwag's early blast. And by doing so Tendulkar is in fact living Sehwag's primary credo, which is not that everyone must play like Sehwag, but that everyone must play like his true self. And it is only when this credo is imbibed, fully, unconditionally, and by all, that we will be able to see the Sehwag effect take its proper toll.
This essay was written before the third Test between India and Pakistan at Bangalore. About the first thing Sehwag mentioned while receiving his Man-of-the-Series award after the defeat, a chastisement reiterated more strongly in a column three days later, was that he could not work out why his senior team-mates failed to bat as they usually might. It was a simple and very valid point.
From 87 for no loss in the opening hour of the last day, sailing at a rate of 3.67, with a win, let alone a draw, in sight, India crumpled to 214 all out. Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly occupied 205 balls for 39 runs, an extended and inexplicable state of defensiveness bound to end in tears. In the first innings of the same Test India's rate had fallen by a staggering 1.61 points after Sehwag was gone for 201.
This was Sehwag's most dominant series yet, one in which he imposed himself on every match. He made his runs at a strike-rate of 73.61 (and an average of 90.66). The middle-order of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly scored at rates of 45.06, 45.21, 45.23 and 34.78; all but Dravid scored at below their usual rates. In three innings - the first innings at Mohali, each innings at Bangalore - India refused to pick up the baton from Sehwag. The collapse on the last day at Bangalore was a mere culmination of a long-running trend. It has cost India matches in the past, and now, it is reasonable to argue, it has cost them a series. Sehwag can be forgiven his disgruntlement.
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