Virender Sehwag September 16, 2009

'Sometimes I play according to the situation'

Last five overs of the day? Forget the nightwatchman, I'll take 25 runs. Modern cricket's greatest maverick batsman speaks about the method in his madness in the first instalment of a two-part interview

Read part two of the interview here

It has been 10 years since your first international game. How has experience changed your batting?
To be fair, I count it only as eight years. I became a regular only in 2001. Till then I had only played few games after my debut, against Pakistan in 1999. As for my batting the best part about it is I have never changed it. I have never changed my thinking, I have never changed my batting style. I have batted the way I batted in local tournaments and then first-class cricket, and I have applied the same approach in international cricket. Because I knew I had got success at Ranji level, I was confident I would get some success in international cricket too. But I was never expecting to become the first Indian to hit two triple-centuries, and become only the third player to do that after [Don] Bradman and [Brian] Lara. But that's destiny.

Would you suggest the same approach to a youngster who comes to international cricket: just play the way you have been playing?
A youngster should know his game first. If he knows his game he can modify it at the top level, if required. But if he doesn't know his game then it is difficult to get success at international level. You will get success occasionally but not regularly. If you know your game you can handle pressure, you can handle any kind of situation, back yourself and play your own game and get success.

But with so many coaches who pass through a player's career, is it not difficult for the youngster to maintain his own game?
The most important thing for any athlete is to know his ability. If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more. Then you will work hard on your fitness, on your batting, on your technique, and you will want to learn how to tackle various situations, and start talking to a lot of experienced players.

Were there instances where coaches or senior players tried to change something in your batting?
There were a lot of players who gave me suggestions when I was young. At times they were very good suggestions and I took them seriously, applied them to my batting and got success after that. I will give you a very good example. Mr [Sunil] Gavaskar asked me why I stood on the leg stump. Instead, why didn't I stand on the middle stump because if I did that I would cover more area. He said, in any case I did not move my feet, so if I'm on leg stump then I'm too far from deliveries outside the off stump, and risk nicking them. But if I stand on the middle, I'm in a better position to play the delivery. This was around 2006, when England came to play India.

"If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more"

The same thing was pointed out by Mr [Kris] Srikkanth, who even suggested I stand on the off stump because I'm very good on the on side and I can pick the ball easily off the pads. According to him, if I'm standing on middle and off and my front leg goes across, the impact will be outside off and I will negate the lbw factor. Also, I have lots of time to play the shot.

So now, depending on the wicket I change the guard: if the wicket is flat then I can manage to stand on the off stump, because nobody wants to bowl into my body as I will easily hit them for fours. So they will pitch it outside off. And if the wicket is doing a little bit, I stand on the middle stump. And I have tried these things straight in a game and never in the nets.

Many former cricketers, especially, tend to believe your game is based solely on attack. Do you agree?
I don't think so. Yes, my game is very aggressive and very positive. I love to play my shots and love to hit fours and sixes. I love to score runs rather than defending or leaving the ball. That is an important aspect of my batting: I don't want to waste balls in any form of the game. When I was growing up we would play a 10-over or 15-over game, and the asking-rate would always be high and I would end up scoring 30 or 40 runs in 15 balls, so I built that mindset right from the beginning and still continue to bat in the same manner.

There is this story about you declining a nightwatchman, where you said you were not an able batsman if you couldn't last 25 balls at the end of the day. Is that true?
It is true. What is the difference between batting at the end of the day or at the start? If you make a mistake you'll get out. So I don't think a batsman really needs a nightwatchman, but it is totally an individual decision. Whenever a captain or coach asked me for a nightwatchman I would say, "No, why? If I can't survive 10 or 20 balls now, then I don't think I'll survive tomorrow morning." I believe that's the best time when you have the opportunity to score runs, when everybody on the field is tired and you can score 20 runs off those 20 balls.

When you take guard, what goes through your mind?
When I take guard I like to clear all the negative thoughts out of the mind first. That I do by singing a song or a bhajan [hymn]. Then, if there is a ball to be hit I will hit it. It doesn't matter if it is the first, fourth, 12th ball. But if it is a good ball I have to respect it, because you cannot hit every ball.

What are the thoughts you look to drive away?
When I take guard, thoughts like "hit the first ball for a four or six" or "try to defend" enter my mind time sometimes. That is a time when my mind is preoccupied with various thoughts. But if my mind is blank, then I will play according to the merit of the ball. So if I'm singing a song, I concentrate hard on getting the right lines and finding a rhythm. And when I'm concentrating on something I'm automatically concentrating on the ball.

So that's your way of switching on. How do you switch off?
Once again by singing a song or talking to the umpires or the batting partner and sharing jokes or something else. But I avoiding speaking about cricket. Yes, you can check about what your partner felt about a particular ball, but not too often. And when I'm in the dressing room and I'm going back to the middle to bat, I just like to chat. If I stay quiet I'm in trouble.

Do you like the bowlers bowling at you?
I'm very happy if the bowler makes me play because then I get opportunities to hit boundaries. If somebody is constantly bowling outswingers or outside off, even if he is bowling on length, for me it is boring cricket. But if somebody is bowling to me, it is a very, very good opportunity for me to play a lot of options.

[Glenn] McGrath, [Muttiah] Muralitharan, [Chaminda] Vaas and [Jacques] Kallis are bowlers who always knew how to frustrate me and play on my patience. But it all depends on how I'm batting: if I'm in the groove then I can stay happy without playing a ball.

Let me give an example. In Multan, where I hit my first triple-century, in 2004, the last half hour the Pakistanis were bowling to an 8-1 field and they were bowling wide outside off stump and I was just leaving every single ball. I played nearly two to three maiden overs. I was batting on 220-odd, so it didn't matter.

Another instance was in Melbourne, when I made 195. In that first session we were just 50 without loss. I had to leave alone balls, defend at times and pay respect to good bowling. But after lunch I opened up. So it is not that Virender Sehwag only tries to score runs, but sometimes I play according to the situation or conditions.

How much in advance do you plan for a Test?
The night before the game I do watch videos to make my plans. Then, if both teams are practising I like to watch the opposition bowlers. A good example I can provide is when I came back during the 2007-08 Australia series. During the first two Tests I was watching all their bowlers closely, how they used their fingers, and I would share my insights with Robin Singh [India's fielding coach] while I was sitting on the bench. The moment I got the opportunity to play in Perth Test, I was ready. So it helps a lot to study the opposition.

"In Adelaide I told Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. The reason was I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally"

There would have been pressure to perform in that series, considering you were not even in the original pool from which the squad was picked?
No, because I was confident despite having flopped for the whole of 2007. Then I even had a bad domestic season, scoring hardly 30-40 runs in the six Ranji innings I played. But I knew if they picked me a big one would come soon. You cannot flop the whole time. I went to Australia with a lot of self-belief and confidence, and I scored 30 and 40 in Perth, then 60-odd in the first innings in Adelaide, and got a big century in the second innings.

There was a first that happened in the first innings in Adelaide. I told [Sachin] Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. He was curious. The reason was, I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. I was putting pressure on myself because I wanted to score runs. I knew the wicket was good, the attack was not great, so I could, if I worked hard, get a hundred. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally. But in Adelaide I was totally exhausted during those 60 runs. I hope that was the last time, and now I enjoy myself when I'm at the other end.

Tendulkar has said that when a player goes through a bad patch his technique remains the same, but every time you enter the ground it is your mind that keeps changing. Can you relate to that?
It is true. Referring to my batting in 2007, I don't think there was anything wrong with my batting or that I was making any mistakes. But in such a scenario the mind likes to deal with the situation in two ways: score quickly, or play with extra caution. But what remains the same is the technique; what does change is the mindset. You are asking too many questions and you are not concentrating on the ball and that's what was happening to me in 2007, which was the worst phase of my life.

I worked hard to come back and did some breathing exercises, used the [Rudi] Webster [psychologist who worked on and off with the team] method of backing myself and it worked out well. I didn't change anything in my batting. The only thing that changed was the mindset, the biggest change.

Did anyone, a selector, former player call up and lend a helping hand?
Srikkanth was the first to call me and tell me not to get disheartened. He motivated me, saying I'm a bloody talented player, and that when I came out of the bad patch I would score a double- or triple-hundred. He just asked me to spend quality time with my family, and when my time came I would score big runs.

His words came true on my comeback, after I scored a double-century in Sri Lanka, triple-ton against South Africa and more than 1000 runs in Test cricket. So if a youngster is not scoring runs and is out of the team, even an SMS to him will give him a lot of confidence. He might think, "At least Viru bhai has belief in me". Apart from Srikkanth, Anil bhai [Kumble], [Rahul] Dravid, Tendulkar, [Sourav] Ganguly, [VVS] Laxman said the same to me. I felt good.

Do you think that since you enjoy your batting it helps you build those big innings?
You can say that. I love to hit fours and sixes. When you are doing that you are enjoying yourself and people will enjoy your batting and you are not tired mentally. You are not concentrating very hard - you just see the ball, hit the ball, and if you see the gap hit it there. If you hit those fours and sixes, you have the comfort to relax every few balls.

Sourav Ganguly once said this about you: "The best way to know how Virender 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" or "Chhakka gaya". That's his way of expressing disappointment at somebody's failure to take advantage of a ball that he thought deserved to be hit for four or six. That's how he thinks, in fours and sixes."
He was a good reader of the mind, and that's why he was such a great captain. He knew what the player was thinking and he would back him and give him the confidence by saying, "You can play the way you want to play, nobody will touch you, nobody will drop you."

It is absolutely true. Even now, if you ask anyone in the dressing room, I still say the same things. But that is for me, not for the player in the middle because if I was there I could easily hit the ball for a four or six, but I'm not blaming anyone else.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo. In part two of the interview, Sehwag talks about being in the zone, his respect for Tendulkar, playing spin, and the influence of coaches on his batting

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