November 21, 2012

The pragmatic art of Virender Sehwag

He has reached an understanding with his own flaws, refused to compromise his strengths, and stayed true to himself

The conventional definition of mental strength is much too narrow. Mental strength is not only about guts and determination, sacrifice and suffering. It is also about holding your nerve, about protecting your self-belief under criticism. It is about saying: "I know what works for me. Sometimes my style of play will look terrible. But over time, I will deliver. And I won't become like everyone else just to avoid criticism." That takes real guts, too. In fact, the justified refusal to compromise your strengths is the ultimate form of mental strength.

By that measure, Virender Sehwag has exceptional mental strength. As he approaches his 100th Test match, we will hear a lot about Sehwag's remarkable hand-eye coordination, his natural ball-striking, his gift of timing and power. But those strengths needed to be nurtured, to be protected from the many voices that demanded that Sehwag curb his natural instincts and play a different way. Sehwag mastered one of the hardest tricks in sport: he reached an accommodation with his own flaws. He recognised that he could not iron out his weaknesses without losing his voice. In simple terms, he stayed true to himself. The whole game is much richer because he did just that.

I first watched Sehwag when Kent played India in 2002. Even then, there was a lot of talk about what he couldn't do - that he couldn't resist going for his shots, that he got out too easily, that he didn't adapt. I noticed something different. It wasn't the way he hit the bad balls for four. It was the way he dispatched the good ones. The bowlers ran up and bowled on a length; Sehwag then drove those length balls for four, all along the ground, with very little apparent risk. Not many players can do that. It was a pattern that would be repeated for 100 Tests.

If Sehwag's mental resilience is underestimated, so is his technique - at least certain strands of his technique. What struck me that day in 2002 was the purity of his bat swing, how squarely the bat face met the ball on impact. And how often he middled the ball.

Isn't that, surely, a central component of a "good technique"? Yes, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar developed more sophisticated techniques that could adapt to difficult pitches. And adaptability, of course, is the ultimate gauge of the ideal all-round technique. But in terms of a technique that makes the best possible contact with a ball flying in a straight line at 85mph, I do not think I've seen a better one than Sehwag's. God-given talent alone - a good eye and fast hands - will not allow you to hit that many balls for four.

Cricket has long misunderstood technique. For too long, the word has been wrongly linked to obduracy and self-denial. Technique is simply a set of skills that allows you to respond to the challenges of your sport. It is as much about attacking options as watertight defence. It is Lionel Messi's exceptional technique, his control of the ball, that allows him to play with such flair for Barcelona. It is Roger Federer's basic technique that allows him to play such a dazzling array of shots from any part of the tennis court.

So it is with Sehwag. It is his technical mastery of attacking shots that puts extraordinary pressure on the bowler. I remember hearing from Stuart Clark when Australia were about to play the Rest of the World XI in 2005. "Just had a bowlers' meeting," Clark explained, "the area of the pitch we're supposed to land it on against Sehwag is about two millimetres by two millimetres!" A fraction full: expect to be driven for four. A fraction short: expect to be punched off the back foot for four.

Sehwag takes boundary hitting very seriously. It is a skill borne of deep attention to detail: you don't become so good at something without loving it. Many great batsmen sit in the dressing room talking about how the players in the middle are missing out on singles. Sehwag, apparently, pipes up when someone misses an attacking opportunity. "He missed a four!" he will say regretfully.

In terms of a technique that makes the best possible contact with a ball flying in a straight line at 85mph, I do not think I've seen a better one than Sehwag's. God-given talent alone will not allow you to hit that many balls for four

He also knows which bowlers to target. Aakash Chopra recalls how ruthlessly Sehwag seized on the most vulnerable bowler. He knew exactly which bowlers he could destroy. That takes intelligence as well as self-awareness. And it is a huge benefit to the team. A batsman who can "knock out" one of the opposition's bowlers changes the whole balance of the match. If one bowler effectively cannot bowl when Sehwag is at the wicket, then the others tire much more quickly.

Like all great players, Sehwag developed a game that suited him. Dravid once told me that Brian Lara and Tendulkar were so talented that they could regularly score Test hundreds in three or four hours. But Dravid felt he had to be prepared to bat for more like five or six hours for his hundreds. Quite simply, in order to score as heavily as Lara and Tendulkar, Dravid thought he had to bat for more balls. Every batsman has to face up to a version of that calculation: what is my natural tempo, what is the appropriate amount of risk for my game?

But there are two sides to that equation. First, there is time. Secondly, there is run rate. Dravid calculated that he possessed the defensive technique and psychological skills to spend more time in the middle than most great players. So he would compromise on run rate and extend his occupation of the crease.

Sehwag asked the same question but reached the opposite conclusion. Instead of facing more balls, how about scoring more runs off the balls that he did face? Sehwag's judgement of his own game, just like Dravid's, has been fully vindicated by his record. Here is the crucial point. Sehwag's approach is not "reckless" or "naïve". It is deeply pragmatic.

Steve Waugh said that Sehwag is the ultimate "KISS" player: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But that is easier said than done. After a series of nicks to the slips, it would have been tempting for Sehwag completely to remodel his technique. But he had the courage to stick to his method and the conviction that when he got back on a pitch that suited him, he would make it pay. After a sparkling hundred in his 99th Test, Sehwag now reaches another century. He is looking to be proved right yet again.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here