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The accidental opener

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

Harsha Bhogle

November 23, 2012

Comments: 18 | Text size: A | A

Virender Sehwag makes heads turn, India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 4th day, December 14, 2008
Among his finest: Sehwag during his second-innings 83 against England in Chennai in 2008 © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by mumbaiguy79 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by   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 patient..an 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

Posted by Dinrockz 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.

Posted by Percy_Fender 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.

Posted by   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...!!!

Posted by   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)

Posted by   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.

Posted by kuku_cricket_fanatic 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 !

Posted by AwesomeSanket 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 :)

Posted by kharidra on (November 23, 2012, 15:41 GMT)

The Cavalier buccaneering style of cricket which is associated with the Calypso brand is by some distance matched by the stroke play. The unique branding is achieved through the sheer number of very high scoring innings with such tremendous strike rate and such a high average and with such regularity. The captain and team management should also make note of the number 4 position and also swap the positions of the players concerned and get the best out of the 2 players. As that provides an opportunity for a more technically accomplished batsman to unveil the already known capabilities in the opening slot. With more runs expected from the number 4 it can just turn into a win win situation.Such articles as these reveal a lot of hidden information and there must be a process to make some useful tips appearing in these articles be directed into the resources think tank that help in strategizing a win win plan.Information flows from the articles but must reach right destination for action.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 14:28 GMT)

Vivian Richards after watching Shewag play in his initial days commented that he would be required to make adjustments to survive in international cricket as his techneque did not appear very sound.I do not know what he would have to say today when Shewag has completed a ton of appearances in Test cricket without making any drastic adjustment to his natural flair.There was one West Indies opener, Roy Fredericks ,who amazed everybody by his unorthodox power hittings as an opener though he was a man of small stature. Shewag also does not fit in to the classical description of a Test batsman ,more so as an opener but comparably as great a opener in the history of the game as any.It is indeed sad that there should be any questions about his value to the team.I compliment him on playing 100 Test for India and wish him to play many more scintillating inings for India.I compliment Harsha for bringing out Shewag's porfile in true perspective.

Posted by moBlue on (November 23, 2012, 13:46 GMT)

sehwag's intelligence is routinely underestimated by those who tend to compulsively overestimate "technique". the fact of the matter is that the highly intelligent sehwag makes his own "luck" with his own "technique" and his own attacking style of play.

by audaciously square driving a fast bowler with the outswing on the up when the ball is new, sehwag takes a chance, allright, but when he gets away with it - as he does often - then he gets ready for the straighter one intended to tuck him up next... obviously the first is the more dangerous ball that he'd rather not face regularly. but the bowler takes a while to go back to it after sehwag just plundered him! if the bowler bowls fuller hoping for swing, you can bet your last cent that sehwag will murder it if the ball does not swing! ...and if the bowler bowls a slower one - because it is a variation - lord have mercy! ...because sehwag loves slower balls which he usually deposits somewhere behind deep midwicket without a bounce! :)

Posted by rajesh_singhSTM on (November 23, 2012, 12:57 GMT)

Many call him flat track bully but forget he has three figure scores in each country at least 2 times. I am pretty surprised some compare him and Afridi but I guess in a democratic world , one can compare Joginder sharma to be on same level as Imran Khan ( now look at abuses hurl in this forum ) because Joginder sharma took the last wicket in world cup final similar to Imran Khan.

Posted by rgolwalkar on (November 23, 2012, 11:19 GMT)

Once again - Harsha sir - you've written a brilliant article for a batsman who has never followed anything traditional - Viru is special because he does things his way. As arrogant and entertaining on field or otherwise - he remains a special test batsman for India and batmen like Sehwag,Sanath redefined opening batting. It doesn't matter if critics starts talking about his technique - i often recollect Geoff Boycott(if i am right) saying - footwork, My Foot when Sehwag scored his first triple century - Sehwag bats for the sheer joy and sounds as he mentioned and we watch him destroy the bowling with pleasure,always :)

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 9:39 GMT)

"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." - That is exactly my thought, put into words in a fine manner by Harsha. A very good piece from a wise man about a great cricketer.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 3:26 GMT)

Thoughtful and provoking article. Wise man...that Harsha.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2012, 3:14 GMT)

Many Many congrats to Sehwag for completion 100th n his carrier,Sehwag is one typically batsmen who is attacking as well as some less defensive player.we hope some more cricket from Shewag in all format, one of the especially player his luck always goes in his fever when he scored more than 100( especially inng like 219,309)

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Harsha Bhogle Harsha Bhogle is one of the world's leading cricket commentators. Starting off as a chemical engineer and going on to work in advertising before moving into television, he is also a writer, quiz host, television presenter and talk-show host, and a corporate motivational speaker. He was voted Cricinfo readers' "favourite cricket commentator" in a poll in 2008, and one of his proudest possessions is a photograph of a group of spectators in Pakistan holding a banner that said "Harsha Bhogle Fan Club". He has commentated on nearly 100 Tests and more than 400 ODIs.

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