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