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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jay on November 26, 2012, 18:12 GMT

    Not sure if Sehwag was the one who changed the way openers bat. I would say Roy Fredricks, Jayasuriya and Slater played like Sehwag way before.

  • Thamara on November 26, 2012, 15:03 GMT

    In my opinion, opening batting position is the most suitable position for Sehwag given his way of batting. Although his technique is not cut out for a test opener, he has been able to make runs without thinking much about his technique. What Sehwag does as an opener is that he messes up the opposition's tactics within a short period of time. And also, unlike other batsmen, Sehwag has an amazing ability of making big scores while playing risky shots. Perhaps, he doesn't look at those risks shots as risk shots. He just wants to score runs whenever he can regardless of the situation of the match. That is what sets him apart from other batsman when it comes to batting in test matches. His way of batting is more suitable in sub-continent than in other countries. Therefore,he has not been as successful in England and Australia. No matter what the format is, bowling team do not want concede many runs. Therefore, sehwag's batting style has taught a lesson for other opening batsmen too.

  • Dummy4 on November 24, 2012, 17:06 GMT

    When I 1st saw Viru..he looked an impressive stokemaker but i never thought he will reach 100 tests..may be he will finish at around 4500-5000 runs in around 70 tests max..i thought-& that itself wud be very decent...but here he is -8500+ runs 100 tests & still counting-hats off to Sourav & wright for gambling with him to open-what a gamble !! he has redefined opening in test ckt -althought we hv already had aggressive guys like fredicks Greenidge Jayasurya & Slater in the past -all high voltage strokeplayers & successful openers..Viru has scored all around the globe-only in past 3 seasons his overseas record has been ordinary-thats due to his over eagerness to play strokes too early w/o being impact player..he keeps things simple & keeps his head still & plays with a straight bat when he is playing a defensive shot..his game is based on cricketing shots & his big 100s have been masterpieces- 8500+runs 50avg & 82 strike rate after 100 tests is awesome & tough to emulate

  • Dinal on November 24, 2012, 6:32 GMT

    No Jayasuriya changed the way the game was played when he said yes to opening and paved the way for guyz like Shewag to play test cricket. Typical trying to get credit for everything.

  • P Subramani on November 24, 2012, 5:03 GMT

    Hasaan Yasin, you must be from Pakistan. Sehwags's hundred on debut came on a greentop in Blomfontein against the likes of Shaun Pollock,nantie Hayward, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini. All young and at their peak in 2003 or so.The second was at Trent bridge Nottingham, the home of fast bowlers. His triple hundreds came against Steyn and co and Shoaib Akhtar and co respectively. He also scored a 195 in 233 balls on a green first day wicket at the MCG. So what you say is not correct. If he had played more abroad in his younger days, I am sure he would have corrected this impression you have. He is a fearless Jaat from Najafgarh. He makes the technique for himself. He may not have the physique and gumchewing menace of Sir Vivian. but he is a legend in his lifetime.It pays to be balanced in views.Prejudice has no place.

  • Dummy4 on November 24, 2012, 3:03 GMT

    All credit should go to Saurav Ganguly.... and also to John Wright to make this make this historic change in Indian cricket...!! This has got us many victories...!!!

  • Dummy4 on November 23, 2012, 20:43 GMT

    the reason he still cant be termed a true great is because of his record outside Asia where he averages 35 in 36 tests...easily the most overrated batsman of the modern era who enjoys dominating bowlers on dead flat pitches...make the pitch a bit lively and he will fail 9 out of 10 times as shown by his poor record in Eng (avg 27), NZ (avg 20) and SA (avg 25)

  • Dummy4 on November 23, 2012, 19:43 GMT

    making shewag the opener in only his 6th test or so, was ganguly's biggest contribution to indian cricket.

  • mukul on November 23, 2012, 17:54 GMT

    Nice one Harsha. Sehwag surely is one player whom you would want to watch anytime, anyday. What an advertisement for Test and cricket in general. Wish we have more Sehwags and this whole talk of future of Test Cricket being in jeopardy because of low viewership will seem so meaningless ! Go Sehwag go !

  • Sanket on November 23, 2012, 17:37 GMT

    tatally agree with u harsha,he has redefined d art of top order test batting ! players like warner hav earned their place bcoz of Viru. A destructive batsmen being an impact player n now dat he has joined d 100 test club,he simply can be defined in one word LEGEND ! hats off viru,LY :)

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