Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal Sambit BalRSS FeedFeeds  | Archives
Editor, ESPNcricinfo

Sehwag's theory of relativity

Where others see risk, he sees opportunity. And he has the numbers to prove it

Sambit Bal

April 1, 2008

Text size: A | A



Absolute clarity, absolute commitment, no regrets © AFP
Enlarge

The word genius must never be used lightly, but it can be applied to Virender Sehwag's stroke-making ability. He is yet to earn the right to sit alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, or even Ricky Ponting, but he has an almost supernatural ability to sense a four. That's his genius.

Sehwag's batting is often associated with audacity, but I wonder if he sees it quite that way. The perception of risk in batting, or indeed in any sporting endeavour, is often directly proportionate to the sportsman's ability. Roger Federer sees winners in those deep shots that kiss the line, not risks. Similarly, Sehwag can see possibilities that don't exist for the less gifted. What appears a risk to many is for him an opportunity to create a boundary.

During the last World Cup in the West Indies, I had the chance to meet Allen Stanford, the Texan billionaire who has been pouring millions of dollars into a Twenty20 competition bearing his name in the Caribbean. I asked him why was he risking so much money without any tangible hope of return. Perhaps he had been asked the question before. "It all depends on how you look at a million dollars," he said. "What looks like a lot of money to you isn't to me. So what seems like a risk to you isn't one for me."

While watching fours rain from Sehwag's bat, I thought of that conversation. It is apparent that Sehwag sees what others are incapable of seeing. Hitting fours is not an indulgence for him. It is his lifeline, an utterly natural course for conducting his business, just as singles are for many others.

Four years ago, Wisden Asia Cricket magazine ran a cover story on India's "Fab Five" - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Sehwag. The feature had interviews with the five players, with each talking about one of the others. Ganguly made a fascinating revelation about Sehwag. "The best way to know how [Sehwag's] mind works is to sit next to him in the players' balcony when India are batting. Every few minutes he will clutch his head and yell, 'Chauka gaya' [missed out on a four] or 'Chakka gaya' ... That's how he thinks, in fours and sixes."

All batsmen dream of and live for those perfect moments, when the mind and body align precisely and the stroke that materialises has everything right about it - balance, timing, placement. Geoff Boycott has written about such a moment in his autobiography. It was the stroke that got him his 100th first-class hundred, in an Ashes Test before his adoring home crowd at Headingley. As the ball came out of the bowler's hand, he knew it was his moment. And as he stepped out to drive it past the bowler, he felt as if he had stepped outside his body to execute the shot.

It is easy to imagine that when Sehwag gets into his zone, he has this kind of transcendental clarity ball after ball. That's a bit full on the off stump; it's going past cover. That's on a good length but a bit wide, so it can go over extra cover. Ah, the bowler has turned his wrist over, so that's a slower one; Yeh toh gayi (this one's gone).

Absolute clarity, absolute commitment, and no regrets. Nothing else can explain the big hundreds - all of Sehwag's last ten centuries have been above 150 - scored at such frenetic pace. On 195 at the MCG four years ago, he hit a full-toss from Simon Katich down the throat of midwicket. He said afterwards that he would have done exactly the same if faced with the situation all over again. Lest anyone had any doubts, he clouted Saqlain Mushtaq for six over midwicket to reach his first triple-hundred a few months later. And that wasn't even a full-toss. The bowlers must always fancy their chances when they're bowling to Sehwag; it's only that Sehwag fancies his own chances much more.

All exceptional players have this knowledge. Most batsmen good enough to play at the international level can play most strokes, but only a chosen few can play them almost at will, and that comes from knowing. Sehwag knows when he aims to belt a ball over cover, it will clear the fielder. He knows when he dances down to a spinner that he will not be beaten in flight. And he knows while employing a reverse sweep to a ball outside the offstump that there no chance that he will miss. Of course, it doesn't always turn that way, and when it doesn't it makes him look foolish, but it is important that he keeps faith in his knowledge.

His strike-rate of over 75 in Test cricket suggests a bit of madness, but Sehwag's strokes, while unorthodox in the light of the classical parameters of footwork, are absolutely pure at the point of execution. His 319 against South Africa featured only one stroke that could be described a slog - a hoick off Makhaya Ntini while he was on 193; it was mistimed but still sailed over square leg for six - the rest were cover- and square-drives, cuts, flicks, drives down the ground, and reverse sweeps that could hardly be called rash because they were thoughtfully conceived and deftly executed.

 
 
Maybe his lack of runs against the weak teams speaks of boredom in the absence of a challenge. Sehwag is not a batsman given to milking bowling attacks. Most batsmen look on a flat pitch as an opportunity to cash in with an easy hundred; Sehwag sees a flat pitch and eyes a blistering double-hundred
 

Also, the charge that he gets out far too often playing the wrong shot doesn't hold: that's true of all batsmen, really. Only rarely is a batsman dismissed by an unplayable ball - and more often than not, that misfortune befalls opening batsmen, a role that Sehwag found himself thrust into. In most cases batsmen, even those whose technical virtuosity is celebrated, collude in their dismissals. What is the difference between a batsman getting out because he played the wrong defensive stroke and one who is dismissed off an aggressive one? Only that a dismissal brought about by an aggressive stroke invites more scorn.

Of course Sehwag has technical limitations that can be exposed by intelligent opponents on pitches that assist seam movement or bounce. And because he plays an attacking game, he will always be less consistent than those who place a premium on survival. But he has big hundreds in almost every country, and averages nearly 54 after 92 innings, with a strike-rate of over 75 - signs of an exceptional batsman. He can't be accused of having filled his boots against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; against those two teams his combined average is 39.80.

Maybe his lack of runs against the weak teams speaks of boredom in the absence of a challenge. Sehwag is not a batsman given to milking bowling attacks. Most batsmen look on a flat pitch as an opportunity to cash in with an easy hundred; Sehwag sees a flat pitch and eyes a blistering double-hundred. Faced with a first innings total of 540, most batsmen would think of avoiding the follow-on, but after the second day of the Chennai Test, Sehwag spoke of batting for two days and putting up 700. Anyone who has a passing knowledge of him would know that it wasn't an idle boast or posturing: it came out of true belief, and a grand vision.

Perhaps, too, therein lies the explanation for his baffling failure in one-day cricket, which led to his temporary banishment from the international scene. One-day cricket is too limited, too stifling, too rooted in percentages, to accommodate the grandness of Sehwag's vision. It can be said also that he has been too lazy to work for the singles and too rigid to adapt his game to the shorter form.

Maybe that's something we ought to be grateful for: Test cricket is Sehwag's true canvas, and there are few more thrilling, exhilarating experiences than when he paints on it with his bold strokes.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

RSS Feeds: Sambit Bal

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Sambit BalClose
Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

'He's got no real weaknesses'

Modern Masters: Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Manjrekar discuss Jacques Kallis' terrific record in all conditions

    'You don't decline the Australian captaincy'

Seventy-nine-year-old Ian Craig talks about the "next Bradman" tag, and how Jeff Thomson caused him to retire young

    India's opening conundrum

Numbers Game: In the last three-and-half-years, India's opening combinations have averaged 18 per partnership overseas, with only one 50-plus stand in 35 attempts

    In Larwood country

Diary: Our correspondent makes his way from Trent Bridge to Nuncargate to find out more about one of England's most fearsome fast bowlers. By Sidharth Monga

Whose top five is that? Not New Zealand's?

The Beige Brigade boys roll out an old hit about Monty P and his black patka, and discuss Pakistan v NZ

News | Features Last 7 days

India look for their Indian summer

Billboards are calling the series England's Indian Summer, but it is India who are looking for that period of warmth, redemption after the last whitewash, for they have seen how bleak the winter that can follow is

India's bowling leader conundrum

The present Indian bowling line-up will tackle its first five-Test series without the proven guidance of Zaheer Khan, their bowling captain. India had unravelled without him in 2011. Will they do better this time around?

South Africa face the Kallis question

Accommodation for a great player like Jacques Kallis should be made with careful consideration and South Africa cannot get carried away with sentiment

Five key head-to-heads

From two embattled captains to the challenge for India's openers against the new ball, ESPNcricinfo picks five contests that could determine the series

Bevan's best, and a combined Indo-Pak team

A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches

News | Features Last 7 days

    India look for their Indian summer (87)

    Billboards are calling the series England's Indian Summer, but it is India who are looking for that period of warmth, redemption after the last whitewash, for they have seen how bleak the winter that can follow is

    South Africa face the Kallis question (55)

    Accommodation for a great player like Jacques Kallis should be made with careful consideration and South Africa cannot get carried away with sentiment

    India's bowling leader conundrum (44)

    The present Indian bowling line-up will tackle its first five-Test series without the proven guidance of Zaheer Khan, their bowling captain. India had unravelled without him in 2011. Will they do better this time around?

    Five key head-to-heads (33)

    From two embattled captains to the challenge for India's openers against the new ball, ESPNcricinfo picks five contests that could determine the series

    Shakib puts on brave face after suspension (31)

    Shakib Al Hasan trained with his team-mates as the BCB directors held their meeting in Mirpur, unaware of the massive punishment he was about to be hit with