February 20, 2012

Sehwag's legacy is in his hands

Whether he joins the ranks of the all-time greats depends on how he counters his current slump

Virender Sehwag's splendid records rebuff the rules, especially the "golden" ones. Perhaps it is this defiance of convention that is the key to Sehwag's appeal.

His massive scores in Test cricket, the highest individual score of 219 in ODIs, a Test average of 51, rank with the numbers of the best in the business. A possible great in the making, one would say - like Don Bradman, Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.

Unfortunately, Sehwag today finds himself going through tough times. It seems like he has several miles to travel still, and how he does will decide how he will be remembered finally, as a great player or a good one.

What makes a player turn from good to great? What is it that separates men of brilliance from the rest? While the list of very good cricketers is long, that of great ones, legends, is tiny by comparison. One needs to tick a lot of boxes before the honour is bestowed.

Agreeing on the parameters for greatness can be thorny, though we can say that career statistics are the first measure. However, we all know that statistics can at times hide a lot more than they reveal.

Hence, the longevity of a player's career can be an useful parameter, to go with the statistics. Andy Ganteaume has a Test average of 112, higher than Bradman, but since he played only one Test match, it means nothing.

The third yardstick could be the impact a player has had in the matches he has performed in, and more importantly the impact he has had on the game as a whole.

And finally, adaptability. All the greats have been known for their ability to adapt to different conditions and situations successfully. It is this ability that essentially defines them.

Some argue Sehwag is a great player already. That his presence in the middle intimidates the opposition, that whenever he fires he wins you the game, and that his feats are beyond dreary statistics - though he has plenty of numbers to boast of as well. A closer look, though, will tell you that Sehwag is a man of dichotomies.

Someone who averages over 50 in Test match cricket in a career of close to 100 Test matches, to go with another 8000 runs in one-day internationals, must be a great or certainly one in the making. Sehwag is one of the few individuals to have two Test triple-centuries, along with four double-centuries, in a total of 22 Test hundreds. But what makes him exceptional is his unheard of strike rate of 82, which means that if he stays long enough in the middle, it almost always ensures that the team's bowlers have enough time to get the opposition out twice.

But numbers can be tyrannical too. Sehwag hasn't scored a Test century outside the subcontinent for the last four years. While he has been among the runs on low and slow pitches on the subcontinent, good bowlers seem to have found holes in his technique and exploited them overseas. Bowlers have now started bowling a lot fuller and closer to his body because they have realised that traditional lines of attack outside the off stump don't work against him. Also, they have started posting fielders in unconventional positions - including a really deep gully and a third-man fielder 25 yards inside the boundary.

Sehwag needs to remind himself of the times he batted himself out of such phases. In 2007, when he was dropped from the side, he worked for hours in the nets while playing for Delhi, meticulously eliminating the iffy shots, especially the aerial ones, which he had a tendency to hit too early in his innings.

There are other issues as well, like an inexplicable average of a mere 35 runs per innings in the limited-overs format. Everyone would agree that that number certainly doesn't justify his talent.

Sehwag has time on his hands, though, to set things right. When India go overseas in a couple of years, he'll have one final chance to redeem himself. That would be the clincher of whether he graduates to greatness or settles where he stands currently.

Sehwag has been around for 13 successful years, having played close to a hundred Test matches and nearly 250 ODIs. He still has a lot of cricket left in him, and he could well finish in the league of players who have played the most international matches in their career. The only challenge he faces now comes from within: will he be able to keep his ageing body fit enough to last the rigours of international and club cricket? For now, though, this box has been ticked.

Impact and influence
It would be fair to say that opening in Test match cricket can be divided into two eras - pre-Sehwag and post-Sehwag. Before he came to the fore, most believed in the time-held notion that only players with certain skill could succeed in Test match cricket. All openers were expected to know where their off stump was and they were supposed to leave a lot more balls than they played. Openers were always the most conservative batsmen in the side, with the job profile clearly stated - see off the new ball, scoring rate be damned.

While he showed encouraging signs of adapting in the first half of his career, he seems to have become a little rigid in the second half. These days he seems to be caught up in the idea of batting the way "Sehwag is expected to bat", rather than thinking about how he should bat, especially when the runs have dried up

Sehwag rewrote the coaching manual, with a style diametrically opposed to the popular belief. He not only successfully challenged the notion of playing it safe when the ball was new, by playing aggressive cricket from the beginning, he also managed to bat in the same vein for long periods, inflicting serious damage on the opposition. That's why most of his big centuries have led to Indian victories.

The flip side to this, though, reiterates the purists' long-held point of view - that his risk-laden style of batting has also often had a negative impact on outcomes. Even when the team has needed him to bat time in order to save matches, he has rarely showed restraint. His modes of dismissal recently have got the naysayers, quite rightly, questioning his attitude: getting out to full tosses twice in Adelaide being a case in point.

Sehwag started as a middle-order batsman who could use the long handle successfully, and also bowl a few overs of offspin. His transformation to a highly successful Test opener speaks volumes about his adaptability.

In the beginning he was, at best, an average batsman against pace, but he went many a mile to improve his response to genuinely quick bowlers.

While he showed encouraging signs of adapting in the first half of his career, he seems to have become a little rigid in the second half. These days he seems to be caught up in the idea of batting the way "Sehwag is expected to bat", rather than thinking about how he should bat, especially when the runs have dried up.

He may have had the measure of bowlers around the world for a long time but if things aren't working for him anymore, shouldn't he be trying to discover other ways of succeeding? His innings in Perth in 2008, and then the century in Adelaide, showed that he could bat differently if he wanted. In those Tests, he curbed his natural instinct and seemed determined to spend time in the middle. He was making a comeback into the side and caution was the need of the hour.

That prudence, though, seems a thing of the past, for now he bats like a millionaire, despite the serious paucity of runs in his bank. Perhaps bowlers around the world have got smarter and have found ways to keep him quiet, or it may be that his eye-hand reflexes may have waned a bit. It could be anything, but finding out what and correcting it is where the challenge lies.

A great player is known for his ability to judge different playing conditions wisely against his level of skill and to adapt accordingly. Take, for instance, Tendulkar. He started as an aggressive middle-order batsman, moved seamlessly to being an aggressive opener in ODIs, and then went on to sacrifice his attacking strokeplay to provide the batting line-up with much-needed solidity. Once he was no longer required to play that role, he came back to his dominating best. Tendulkar also changed his approach a few times to get out of bad patches. It's time Sehwag took his cue from him.

It is not a bad time, in fact, for him to pull out videotapes of his own superlative innings in Melbourne in 2003. The track was damp and had a lot in it for Brett Lee and Co. to exploit. Sehwag, judging the conditions perfectly, took his time, left a lot of deliveries outside the off stump and unleashed his trademark strokes only when he was set.

The suggestion that Sehwag drop down the order may be a way to deal with the issue, though it would perhaps amount to surrendering to the challenge. A change in his batting position would inevitably make him less effective, for it is his presence at the top that doesn't allow the opposition to settle. Batting in the middle order, he may not be all that intimidating; he may continue to score lots of runs but those runs won't have the same impact on the outcome.

How Sehwag responds to his current predicament will determine whether or not he will find his way into the hall of fame. He is standing at a crossroads in his career. If he dares to take the road less travelled, he will be remembered as a genius. Else, he will continue to be a very good player, but only that.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • giri on February 23, 2012, 20:28 GMT

    Dhoni (an average player) is far better player than him.

  • Viswanthan on February 23, 2012, 14:12 GMT

    One thing I would not agree though is that what is wrong if Sehwag moves down the order and is able to dominate the bowling.

    Everyone was scared of Gilchrist. He would change a match on its head coming in at no. 7 for Australia. If one plays like the Sehwag way, at any position, the opposition is in for trouble.

  • Viswanthan on February 23, 2012, 14:09 GMT

    Great Akash. What an advice you have given not just as a cricketer and an observer of the game. But I guess, lots as a friend and a former opening partner of Sehwag.

    Your analysis is just perfect. After being dropped in 2007, Sehwag was made to work hard to retain his place in his team and that reflected in his scores. He APPLIED himself well, preserved the wicket and stayed in the crease for a while and the results were rewarding.

    Three good innings and the fourth one was a match saving 151. Sehwag got back the confidence. He has repeatedly failed to do that now. May be, as pointed out, he is not able to do it anymore either because of physical or mental reasons.

    And today he cannot be called a great player unconditionally. He has played some great innings and is one of the very good players. But he cannot be yet termed a great player.

    Rightly said he has to take a cue from Tendulkar in the way he had adapted. But he has to go through the grind. No second choice. Let us see.

  • Dummy4 on February 23, 2012, 10:33 GMT

    I love Virender Sehwag. He is a unique, one of a kind player. Viru will come back, and come back with a bang guys. Just watch. VIRU ALL THE WAY!!

  • Sundar on February 23, 2012, 5:04 GMT

    @Shareef Sehuribas I'm not criticizing him just because he hasn't had a big score in a while or because our team is losing. If he clicks he goes on to score quickly and usually makes a big score but 9 out of 10 times he does not click and just gets out cheaply. Indian grounds are a lot smaller than grounds in western countries so even his mishits go for six in India but outside India he just gets caught. It doesn't matter if he does well in India after this series because India are nearly unbeatable in India anyway, they can beat most teams most of the time without him. Even on pitches where you need to play the new ball defensively he just swings his bat wildly and gets out, which is just unacceptable at the international level. I don't consider players like him and Afridi to be even good players, let alone great.

  • Mohammed on February 23, 2012, 4:07 GMT

    Akash Chopra's brilliant and candid analysis of Sehwag is impressive and I agree with him 100%. Sehwag needs to adapt to the situation, he often, like in the previous ODI against SL gets in CB series, throws away his wicket due to his wickedness. The bowler had bowled the worst of the delivery but Sehwag thinks he should be rewarded by giving away his wicket. He surely have started to bat like MLLIONAIRE as Akash says, no matter what kind of talent you have, if it fails to deliver results, it is of no use, if Sehwag has to get himself out just on the 2nd ball he faces, we rather should let Umesh Yadav open the innings.

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2012, 13:29 GMT

    Cool guys you all started criticising after two series. For me it looks pretty premature. Undoubtably he is in his bad patch and I am sure he will be back as earliest. People easily forgetting one thing he is a big impact player. As Akash mentioned always we can devide the indian cricket period pre Sehwag and post Sehwag. We know how many technically solid players failed in the opening slot. He is not a specialist opener and team management made him to fill the slot. He filled the slot efficiently. Sure he will come back strongly and still I believe that he needs to offer lot to the Indian cricket. My humble request to viru is play senisble and prove all wrong.

  • Dummy4 on February 22, 2012, 1:31 GMT

    In past Sehwag used to score big scores 2 out of ten times. Now the whole world knows how to trap him. He goes in a trap very easily and puts rest of the team under pressure from the beginning. Yesterday's match proved that he is not a good captain as well. I don't know why didn't he give bowling to Raina before 49th over. Raina had so well in the previous match, is it a result of some political polarization in the team? Whatever it is, the whole nation is ashamed of the performance of the team. Another question coming to my mind is the role of the coach. The team's performance came down after he became the coach of the Indian team. (:

  • stuart on February 21, 2012, 20:28 GMT

    His shot today in the one day match says it all.Slapped it to third man and looks as though it is someone elses fault.He is not even a decent player in bouncy conditions

  • kazim on February 21, 2012, 19:46 GMT

    For those who like to compare sehwag to viv richards and other great player.... looking at the standards of bowling back then and bowling standards today. Dont be a fool.

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