August 15, 2008

Is Sehwag great yet?

Up there with the Gavaskars and Tendulkars? Just where does India's gonzo opener stand in his country's batting pantheon?

Five thousand runs says footwork is overrated © AFP

VS Naipaul has written about a general-knowledge test he took in the fourth grade: "Who is the greatest cricketer in the world?" He answered "Bradman". "The pencilled cross on my paper was large and angry," Naipaul recalled later. The correct answer, apparently, was Learie Constantine. Any response to such questions says more about the one who answers than the answer itself. Decades after Naipaul's test, it was still possible to answer from the heart. In my schooldays, the greatest Indian batsman was Gundappa Viswanath; this even after Sunil Gavaskar had begun to rewrite records. I was in good company - Gavaskar himself thought Viswanath the better player.

But thanks to television and Cricinfo, the age of innocence is long past. There has been an unweaving of the rainbow. It is not enough now to say that a batsman was poetry in action. Art has been replaced by math. How many second-innings centuries did he score? How often did he bat with the last three players and put on over a hundred runs? What is the difference in average between the first innings and second? Statisticians, once dismissed as sad people for whom a missing leg-bye in a 19th-century Wisden was more exciting than a pull by Richards, have reduced greatness to decimal points.

You can't argue with the big numbers, though. 99.94 and 19 for 90 will never be broken. But 10,122 has been, twice by Indian batsmen.

Which brings us to the question of the day: has Virender Sehwag earned the right to be included among the greatest Indian batsmen ever? Above the likes of Viswanath, Vijay Hazare, Vijay Merchant, CK Nayudu, and alongside Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar?

The statistics are revealing. After 60 Tests, 15 centuries and an average of 52.62, Sehwag has scored more runs and more centuries than everyone barring Gavaskar at the same stage. So why is he not spoken of in the same breath?

Perhaps it is because "Fab Four" is a convenient label, and there is an attraction to the allusion that is missing from, say, "Famous Five". Perhaps it is because Sehwag is not articulate, and appears even to someone like Geoff Boycott as a talented but brainless batsman. Perhaps there is a deeper reason, his Jat working-class background versus the middle-class Brahmin origin of the others.

Sehwag himself is not given to analysis. He is a simple man with a simple objective - to score as many runs as quickly as possible. His strike-rate in Tests is 77; Ponting's is 59, Lara's 60. Only Adam Gilchrist has an even more impressive 82. We don't know what Nayudu's strike-rate was, or Hazare's, so they tend to be judged on orthodoxy or stature in the teams they were a part of. You can't break that down to figures, which is one reason modern players tend to appear more impressive than their predecessors. Forget television; you can see patterns enough in Statsguru.

Sehwag is climbing the last steps to the pantheon, but these are the toughest ones. After 30, Gavaskar's average dropped to 48, Tendulkar's to 46. Dravid alone did better

Sehwag's greatest asset is his balance. He doesn't have great footwork, but this shortcoming is noticed only when he gets out cheaply. He fails in exactly the same manner in which he succeeds. He is given a long run even when he fails, because if he can bat through even half an innings, he can help India put up an unbeatable score. And if he can do that even half the time he goes out to bat, the percentages are still in India's favour.

That also explains why in the Indian mind Sehwag has been slotted alongside the girl in the nursery rhyme: when he is good he is very good; when he is bad he is horrid. This suggests an inconsistency that doesn't sit well with those who inhabit pantheons. After his 254 in Lahore two years ago, Sehwag went 11 innings without a fifty. After his 180 in St Lucia, he had just one fifty in his next 12 innings, and after his 319 against South Africa in Chennai, he went six innings without a fifty.

There is an obviousness about Sehwag's batting that upsets people who like complexity and mystery. To be simple is not to be simplistic; Sehwag makes it all look so easy that it is difficult to believe that he might be the world's most destructive batsman. So many runs without moving his feet?

India's obsession with technique is probably a reflection of the English attitude. Yet this ought not be. Just as the English spoken by Indians is more colourful, the cricket played by them is also unique. Sehwag brings to the game the hearty disregard for its Englishness that featured in the batting of such as Mushtaq Ali (India's first Test centurion abroad) and Krishnamachari Srikkanth, while focusing on fewer "must-dos".

Sehwag modelled himself on Tendulkar, and there was a phase at the turn of the millennium when it was difficult to tell them apart when they were batting together. Perhaps he put on weight only to help the spectators identify him more easily.

He has the expression of a man who has wiped the past from his mind. It is impossible to tell from watching him whether he is batting on 0 or 200, such is his composure. No batsman has hit a six to reach 300 in a Test innings, as Sehwag has done. That sums up the man and his game. Earlier he had been dismissed in Australia for 195 while attempting to bring up the double-hundred with a six. "It was a loose ball, and loose balls are meant to be hit," he said simply.

How Sehwag goes after Tendulkar and Dravid leave will be crucial to how he is evaluated © AFP

Such simplicity in a man and his method is attractive. Many players have been struck immobile by thinking too much. No paralysis by analysis for Sehwag. There is a placidity about him as the ball is delivered that is in contrast to the activity around him once he plays it.

When in 2001 he made his entry with a century on Test debut in Bloemfentein, he batted at No. 6. It wasn't until four series later that he opened - at Lord's, where he made the top score of 84. He made a century in the next match en route to making five of his first six centuries in five different countries and on the first day of the match.

Ian Frazier, once a biomechanist with the Indian team, summed it up when he said, "Indians have got a gem on their hands. Any guy who gets out and five minutes later can actually forget he played that innings is a godsend within an Indian culture which tends to reflect on things over and over again." In fact, Sehwag's ability to forget is as important a weapon as other people's gift of remembering.

He turns 30 in October, and then comes the difficult part. What happens thereafter will decide his place. Life must be lived forwards, but judgements can only be made in retrospect. Sehwag is climbing the last steps to the pantheon, but these are the toughest ones. After 30, Gavaskar's average dropped to 48, Tendulkar's to 46. Dravid alone did better.

Sehwag in the pantheon? Close, but let's see how India's batting sits on his shoulders after Tendulkar and Dravid depart. Candidates for the pantheon must be both statistically and psychologically eligible. This means passing the test of both longevity and responsibility.

Highest Test averages by Indian batsmen
Player Matches Runs Average In matches won HS 100s 50s
Rahul Dravid 124 10223 54.37 71.54 270 25 52
Sachin Tendulkar 150 11877 54.23 62.11 248* 39 49
Virender Sehwag 59 5074 54.20 50.29 319 15 13
Sunil Gavaskar 125 10122 51.12 43.97 236* 34 45
Vijay Hazare 30 2192 47.65 121 164* 7 9
Mohammad Azharuddin 99 6215 45.03 55.48 199 22 21
VVS Laxman 96 6000 43.79 51.79 281 12 35
Mohinder Amarnath 69 4378 42.50 42.83 136 11 24
Polly Umrigar 59 3631 42.22 50.66 223 12 14
Dilip Vengsarkar 116 6868 42.13 47.48 166 17 35
Qualification: a minimum of 50 innings

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore