November 12, 2012

Memo to Sehwag

He needs to remember, when he gets to 30 or 40, that he isn't playing like he used to

What makes Virender Sehwag such a special player? Is it his monk-like stillness at the crease while playing the most outrageous shots that charm and baffle? Or is it his supreme eye-hand coordination, backed by remarkable bat speed, that compels you to marvel at his inimitable flair? All of the above have had a part to play in making Sehwag who he is today, yet it would be unfair not to take into account other, not-so-technical, factors that have contributed to his success.

Let's begin with his game sense. In a Ranji Trophy match against Orissa, played in Delhi, on one of the worst pitches I've played first-class cricket on, I remember Sehwag stepping down the track to a medium-pace bowler, playing a wild slog and missing the ball by at least a foot. Delhi were already one-down for next to nothing and needed to consolidate. I went up to him to persuade him to take it slow, but Sehwag told me that coming down the track and missing the ball by a mile had been a part of a bigger plan. On the damp and green Kotla pitch, it was impossible to put bat to ball when the bowler pitched it up. Since Orissa's bowlers were not budging from that length, he needed to do something extraordinary to make them falter. Just as he anticipated, the next two balls were pitched short. Sehwag obliged by hitting two crisp boundaries.

It was not his skill but his incisive understanding of the game that made him so successful. He always knew how big the windows of opportunity were and capitalised accordingly.

Another fascinating thing about his game is the belief he has in his abilities. While most people tell him to move his feet, get behind the ball, and so on - especially against better bowlers in bowler-friendly conditions - he always sticks to his game plan and his strengths. Where others practised caution, Sehwag saw opportunities. In Chennai in 2004 against Australia, when he went out to bat at the fag end of the day, everyone advised him to show restraint. But he said that since the Aussies would attack him, he could easily pick up a few boundaries. And he did.

He backed himself to beat his opponents at their own game - playing Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan against the spin, for instance. Once Sehwag did that successfully, they played into his hands. By hitting a boundary off a fairly good ball, he forced the bowler to raise the bar and subsequently falter. It isn't a coincidence that he gets more balls pitched on his legs than other openers. Even the best bowlers overdo it when trying to cramp him for room.

Thirdly, he has been successful because of the honesty with which he acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses. After surviving Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie in the first session on a slightly damp pitch in Sydney in 2004, Sehwag confessed how it was brilliant that I took more of the strike against Lee, because he didn't fancy his chances against the moving ball. Not that he wouldn't have survived - a week before that match, he had scored 195 in Melbourne on day one - but he fancied his chances more against Gillespie. He would always gracefully accept what he could do and what he couldn't.

However, things seem to have changed a little bit for Sehwag in the last couple of years. It may have something to do with age, and the eyes losing their sharpness, or the hands not generating the same bat speed anymore. Players who rely on eye-hand coordination find the going tough if things are not in perfect sync.

If that is the case, should Sehwag rebuild his game from scratch and find ways to move his feet more?

Any plan to develop a technical skill that Sehwag did not possess would have meant compromising on his strengths. Unlike other players, the only plan B he has is that of biding time

John Wright, under whom Sehwag blossomed, would perhaps advise against such radical shifts. During his tenure as the India coach, whenever Sehwag went through a lean patch, Wright told him to keep the faith, play to his strengths, and yet be selective. Wright never tinkered with his batting, even when things weren't going right, since Sehwag's strengths are his balance and his hands. Any plan to develop a technical skill that Sehwag did not possess would have meant compromising on his strengths. Unlike other players, the only plan B Sehwag has is that of biding time.

Logically, game sense, once developed, stays with you forever. So that's not what Sehwag is missing. It's evident that his mind is still sharp, as is his self-belief, because he still goes after balls like he did earlier, and he isn't shying away from playing against the spin or from attacking from the outset.

So it's possibly the honesty that has gone missing. While I'm 100% sure that Sehwag acknowledges that of late he hasn't been among the runs, he seems to forget it whenever he gets a start. To me, an opener getting out cheaply is acceptable, because the chances of him getting a good ball early on are higher than for batsmen lower down the order. But not capitalising on a start isn't. And that's what is ailing Sehwag these days. More than the lack of starts, it's that when he reaches 30 or 40, he begins playing like the Sehwag of old, which he isn't at the moment.

The days when he used to hit three boundaries per over for 90 overs can return, but only if he's happy to hit one in two overs for a few consecutive innings. He needs to be ruthlessly honest about his current predicament. That's the only way to get out of it. There's a thin line between having immense belief and becoming arrogant. The moment that line gets blurred, honesty goes out of the window.

It isn't too late for Sehwag to turn it around, and he doesn't need to bat in the middle order to do so. He just needs to find a new process to build an innings, which might be in contrast to how he did it earlier. He doesn't need to rebuild his game from scratch but needs to discover another way of scoring runs. Isn't that a hallmark of all good players?

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