August 6, 2010

Gavaskar v Sehwag

What if two greats of Indian cricket were to bat together? One thing is for sure: they'd do things their way

I know it isn't possible, but what the hell, we think about it all the time. We try and compare players from different generations, and while that is not just unfair but impossible to do, I have been spending a lot of time (an advantage of being on one flight too many) thinking of what it would be to watch Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag, the two Indian opening batsmen at either end of my cricket-watching interval, bat together.

For starters, both would enjoy it. Gavaskar has always said that his bread-and-butter shot was the single, and he could take it almost as a ticket to the show at the other end. And Sehwag could see the powerful cocoon Gavaskar built around himself, so single-minded was he in constructing an innings.

But even more fascinating would be to see the difference in style. Gavaskar was the classical old-school batsman, body right behind the line of the ball, bat straight as a well-constructed wall (Rahul Dravid was version 2.0). One of the great joys of watching cricket for us was to see Gavaskar up on his toes, eyes like an assassin's, never wavering from the object of attention, meeting with his bat a ball projected at his throat, letting it dribble meekly down its face, now devoid of any potency, and fall dead by his toes. Gavaskar played some of the most attractive shots you will see - the straight drive was for posterity - but the way he neutralised the venom of a bouncer defined him for me.

To Gavaskar, and indeed to many of his generation, the wicket was a citadel that could not be breached. It had to be protected like a family heirloom. When you were sure it was safe, you played the bold shot. But you were not encouraged to hit in the air, and if you were stumped by a yard trying to hit a six when on 99, you were probably made to stand in a corner.

But when Sehwag does it, it doesn't evoke howls of protest. Sehwag is the warrior who must conquer many lands and only then return home for a meal. If he cannot attack, if the bowler's offering is so compact that shot-making is not an option, only then will he defend. There are no heirlooms any more. If you lose a BlackBerry, you buy another. Or if you think blue looks cool, you buy another. Occasionally in trying to spear the opponent you leave a flank open and pay for it, but that is just one of the hurdles of doing a job.

And so Sehwag, such a product of this generation, must play beside the line rather than classically behind it. The feet provide support to the body but don't have a huge role to play in shot-making. You let the ball draw alongside and then, with the space you now possess, you either slice it to bits or smite it to the boundary. It is an altogether more violent form of batting. If Sehwag got behind the line of the ball, like he sometimes does when it is too straight, he wouldn't have the space or the freedom to play his way.

The Gavaskar approach was maddening to a bowler. Robin Jackman once told me of how Gavaskar didn't let him see the off stump for an entire spell. "He made me bowl where he wanted me to bowl rather than where I wanted to bowl," he said. The Sehwag approach is to put fear in a bowler's mind. "He must know when he is running in that if he bowls a bad ball, Sehwag will hit it for four," he once said. Just as a bowler can induce a tense batsman to play a bad shot, so too can Sehwag force an uncertain bowler to bowl a bad ball.

With Sehwag you have fear and hope, with Gavaskar it was like hitting your head on a rock at the sheer futility of bowling. Gavaskar would never have got stumped on 99, and he wouldn't have tried to hit a six on 195 either. Two different styles you could not hope to see in a lifetime. But at the corresponding points in their career (79 Tests each), a mere 88 runs separate them. The difference in batting average is but 0.68.

Eventually, therefore, it is about doing things as you know best; as two brilliant cricketers 30 years apart have shown.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here