December 24, 2011

When's the first 500?

Eight years after he astonished Melbourne with 195 in a day, Sehwag is back. What will he produce this time?

Just say India win the toss and bat on Boxing Day. If Virender Sehwag receives half the strike, if he repeats his 1.19-runs-a-ball scoring rate of two years ago when he batted through a day in Mumbai for 284, and if he doesn't get out, he will bring up his 500th run shortly before tea on the second afternoon, at 2.32pm to be exact. If he goes a little faster, as fast as in the Indore one-dayer last fortnight, the clock will say four minutes past mid-day when he crosses for run number 500. "Run" is a misnomer, actually: there'll be not much running, mostly a whole lot of standing and swatting, if Viru becomes Test history's first 500 man.

Two days before Boxing Day is a time for big ifs. Probably when the morning comes, and if there is swing in the air, Sehwag will appear vulnerable and edge a couple and get hit. It will be his first in-the-skin look at a Melbourne Test pitch since eight summers ago. He won't have looked, unlike the other players, during the pre-game machinations. He doesn't look. If you look and it looks like a road you'll only start calculating how many Christmases am I in for here, and complacency's dangerous; if you look and it's a bit green, you'll think I'd better get my technique shipshape and my feet moving. And a Sehwag whose feet don't budge is vintage, destructive Sehwag.

That's the first thing Melburnians peering at him through haven't-seen-this-bloke-in-eight-summers eyes will comment on. No footwork. Ask Sehwag about footwork and what he says is this. "Doesn't matter." It takes a while, till a few overs before the first drinks break usually, to remember that he's right, for him, and that everybody before, all the dashers, nudgers, nightwatchmen, stonewallers, pinch-hitters, textbook buffs and dads strapping on falling-apart thigh pads and stepping out into the kitchen were, maybe, not as right as they told each other they were. Once upon a time there was pre-Sehwag. Now it's Sehwag time. Who knows what's next. But by that first drinks break he's flying, not his feet, just the scoreboard, his arms and hands too, his broad back arching away cub-like and stealing room for his hands to hack the ball past or over the man at point. No one hacks harder. How can that be, you ask; the lab tests have come back inconclusive. But to properly hammer in a nail you have to hold it at a right angle to the wall, and someone once said that's Sehwag's secret. Bat meets ball at right angles. Ball explodes. There's a carpenter's efficiency to it, a carpenter's elegance too, alas.

No one who sees Sehwag this Boxing Day will be moved to reach for their quill, pen or keyboard and bash out a poem.

Press Sehwag himself for clues and he's been known to say, "Just see the ball and hit the ball." Or: "I just look at the ball and try to play my shots." Or: "Before you get out, score as many as you can." Rahul Bhattacharya has called him the "nearest thing India has ever had to an express fast bowler"; harsh on Kapil Dev, whose second-over bumper on his first morning of Test cricket persuaded Sadiq Mohammad to summon from the bowels of Faisalabad's Iqbal Stadium a helmet, this at a time when batting helmets resembled space mushrooms and were no less exotic a delicacy.

By that first drinks break he's flying, not his feet, just the scoreboard, his arms and hands too, his broad back arching away cub-like and stealing room for his hands to hack the ball past or over the man at point

Back to Sehwag. "He showed our bowlers," Stuart MacGill reminisced last week, "that he didn't need a look at us before he swung. My first ball to him at the MCG went over midwicket for six." Except it was MacGill's second ball, not first. Also, it went over cover not midwicket - a casual swing, a ball spiralling up, up, up. Forgive MacGill some haziness. Fronting up to Sehwag is enough to unhitch a bowler from his moorings, to rob him of his sense of time and place. Especially a spin bowler. Sehwag tries to maximise runs against the bowler he thinks poses the minimum threat, and that's usually the spinner. The day at the MCG that MacGill was talking about was that Melbourne day eight summers ago, a three-sixer day for MacGill. Sehwag punched out 195. And as yet another MacGill offering drifted towards the tram tracks of mid-distance, it felt good that the special comments man in the commentary box was none other than Geoff Boycott, the methodical slug of '70s yore there to witness Sehwag's sparkly-winged dragonfly. "Some players," Boycs muttered, "don't get in positions quickly to put it away, but 'e does, Sehwag, 'cos 'eez first intent is to look where he can hit something for runs."

Boycott on biffing: an expression of grudging admiration. Wider, wider, wider we go. How wide can a sport's boundaries of what's possible and what's impossible be stretched? Enough for a man to hit 500 in a Test?

Four hundred is the record, set by Brian Lara in St John's. Curious to think, that's not so much more than Len Hutton's 364 in 1938, a mere 36-run rise in 73 years, a case of arrested evolution, an anomaly - now, a sitting duck in Wisden's books. Already Sehwag has blitzed the one-day record 16 days ago with his 219 in Indore. Far from being Sehwag's best effort imaginable, it probably wasn't even the greatest innings Indore has seen. That honour goes to a sun-hatted Ian Botham's laughing masterpiece against Central Zone in 1982, immortalised in Scyld Berry's Cricket Wallah, when Botham outscored his partner Gatting 118 to 3 at one stage, middling even the orange peel that a spectator tossed in his direction.

The time now's ripe. Pitches are covered, lost rain-time gets made up, lbw laws are tailored towards batsmen, TV replays stomp on chance and injustice, and helmets, no longer mushroomy, are less heavy and wearisome on the head. Fast bowlers tend not to be lightning-like, and few reliably swing it; spinners' mysteries are comfortably decoded over late-night slo-mos and a tumbler of whisky. Bats are like pick-axes. The day draws nearer when a mishit traverses the length of the Nullarbor Plain. Probably cricket is headed for the same technology debate golf has been through, leading us eventually, inexorably, to fields being lengthened; but not yet.

Speed, impatience - and a sense, with this, that yesterday's ways and mores are for toppling and ignoring today - are qualities ingrained in our culture. And where the culture is, cricket follows.

Sehwag. Five hundred. Think not if, but when.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country