November 23, 2012

The accidental opener

When Virender Sehwag accepted the challenge of opening in Tests, he dramatically changed the way the game was played

India's accidental opener completes a hundred Tests, and that is an occasion to celebrate. Other Indian batsmen in the past were pushed to open: some struggling, some screaming, some shying away, and nobody quite making anything of it. Maybe they were insecure. Maybe they worried too much. Maybe they weren't good enough. None of those applies to Virender Sehwag. "Yes," he said when asked to open, and he made a huge success of it.

John Wright, who was the coach during some of India's happiest years, says: "Sehwag didn't redefine his game because of his batting position. He redefined the position with his batting." Typical John. Simple words to make a great statement.

Sehwag never redefined his game. There were moments when you wished he had, but then he would never have produced those masterpieces. We love picking parts of a player, but in reality you cannot, because the limitation is a strength and an identity. Kumble with a slow, loopy legbreak? VVS Laxman darting between the wickets? No, it wouldn't be them if they did. If Sehwag had sniffed at the ball and let it go, given the first hour to the bowler, would he have been a Gavaskar? No, because he has given us joy and frustration, thrill and heartbreak, by being the player he is.

Along the way, he has made 8448 runs at 50.89 and a strike rate of 82. You'd take that every day of the year with a smile and a thank you. But to assume that he has ridden this journey of life armed with but a cavalier attitude belittles his struggle and the approach to life that has served him so well.

He attacks the ball because the bowler must worry about where to bowl next. "The batsman is nervous," he once told me, "but he must make the bowler nervous too. When the bowler is nervous, he will bowl a bad ball." And so Sehwag challenges the bowler, plays him in areas that will befuddle him, casts a doubt in his mind, and by doing so forces him away from his strengths. It is a sound strategy if you have the skill and the right mindset.

That is why some of his finest innings have come when he has taken the attack to the bowlers when others have struggled to. Any list of his finest must feature the Test in Galle where he carried his bat for 201 out of a total of 329. That is a formidable number in itself but it doesn't tell you he made those runs in 231 balls. And that unbelievable day at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai when he made 284 from 79 overs. If that doesn't startle you, it is because Sehwag has opened our minds to such a possibility. But think about it again. There was an era when 270 for a team in a day was good cricket. He made 284 on his own - and nearly a third triple-hundred - at better than a run a ball.

A triple-hundred at that rate means you have produced an epic. It doesn't matter who the bowlers were - you just don't bat at that rate for that long. But in March 2008, bowling to Sehwag in Chennai were Steyn, Morkel, Ntini, Kallis and Harris. You would do well to get a solid century against them, as Rahul Dravid did with a 291-ball 111. Sehwag made 319 off 304 balls after being in the field for 152 overs. He scored 257 of those runs on day three. Nobody in Indian cricket has done that.

"The batsman is nervous," Sehwag once told me, "but he must make the bowler nervous too. When the bowler is nervous he will bowl a bad ball"

For long we have associated greatness with the ability to overcome, to struggle and then embrace freedom, so we hesitate to assign greatness to those who vanquish, who conquer.

Sehwag has been a trailblazer. You would have thought, therefore, that his temperament would be perfectly suited to the shorter formats, where caution is embraced only when defeat is imminent. But here is the paradox. Sehwag actually benefits from the attacking nature of Test cricket and is negated somewhat by the defensive approach of one-day and T20 cricket. In Test matches the bowlers attack. In the shorter forms they defend, they have fewer catchers and more run-savers. As a result Sehwag's boundary hits are obstructed and he feels the need to do something more adventurous. But most of the time he lives life on the edge anyway, and to go beyond is to make risk unviable.

I am suggesting that Sehwag will always be a better Test batsman. The numbers aren't an aberration but an illustration of the kind of player he is.

As we look back at his 99 Test matches, celebrate a breath-taking journey and acknowledge a free spirit strong enough to remain that way, we should ask which the finest of his many offerings were. Were they the three I mentioned? The 201 in Galle, 293 in Mumbai and 319 in Chennai? Or do you want to look at the 309 in Multan, 106 in Nottingham, 105 in Bloemfontein, 195 in Melbourne? What about the 83 in Chennai four years ago, when he led an unlikely conquest of 387 in the fourth innings? All of these, except the first century in Bloemfontein, were made from the opening position.

Surely he must be the greatest Indian opening batsman after Gavaskar (though I run the risk of incurring the wrath of those who might have appreciated the great Vijay Merchant). Why, then, do I call him an "accidental opener"? A couple of years ago I asked him whether, after all these runs, he finally looked at himself as an opening batsman.

"No," he said, "I am a No. 4". I persisted. "But you've made so many at No. 1". "Maybe I would have made more at No. 4," he shot back.

I don't know if he would have, but I do know that if he had turned down the suggestion from Sourav Ganguly and Wright to bat at the top, cricket would have been poorer. If the test of your success lies in whether or not you leave your profession stronger, then Sehwag has been mighty successful. I think he will play his 100th with a song on his lips.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here