September 13, 2013

How about Sehwag in the middle order?

He has always talked about how he would like to bat lower down. Perhaps he should be granted that wish now

The Indian selectors have done the right thing by including some senior stalwarts of Indian cricket in the India A team against West Indies A. I believe that when you drop players of the calibre of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan for poor form, you should also be keen to have them back when their form returns.

Dropping established senior players can have two effects. One: the player takes being dropped so much to heart that he never recovers from the jolt, and comes back a shadow of himself. Two: the player comes back with the vigour and intent of old, and the team ends up getting a few good seasons out of him.

Sehwag is an interesting case here. We have heard stories about Zaheer and Yuvraj Singh training hard to get back to peak fitness. Gambhir has gone to England, knowing that good performances there tend to make news in the Indian media, thus putting pressure on the selectors to pick him. But what is Sehwag doing? We haven't heard much about his activities. He seems to have chosen to keep a low profile.

This can be easily misinterpreted as him having no desire to return to Indian cricket, unlike his three colleagues, but we must be careful to not draw such conclusions, just as much as we ought not to be too carried away by Zaheer's and Yuvraj's "exotic" training stints in France. In both cases the judgement should be made on pure performance and fitness, based on the players' showings against West Indies A.

Sehwag has always done things differently. He has batted differently and so also prepared for matches differently. Maybe these unique methods happened to suit his general approach to life, but you cannot grudge a player an approach that has brought him success over 103 Tests in 12 years. He has had a hugely successful run and it is natural for him to keep trusting the process that brought him such incredible results.

I heard a story once of how VVS Laxman was having a knock on the morning of the last day of a Test series, though he had no role to play in the rest of the match. So also Sehwag, who asked VVS, "What's the point of this knock when your next match is two months later?" That's how Sehwag thinks. But while you can easily be fooled by his casual demeanour, for him to have played more than 100 Tests, there has to be a burning desire inside along with some god-gifted talent.

Obviously Sehwag fans are excited that he is back in the reckoning and are hoping that he clicks in the two India A games and comes back into the national team. Well, unfortunately for them, even if he gets two hundreds in those two games, the fact is that there is no place for Sehwag as an opener in this Indian team for a while. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have done so well as Test openers lately that the selectors will be obliged to give them a long run even if they fail. For Sehwag, who is 34, time is running out. At that age, one year in cricket is like a decade in another profession.

Sehwag deserves another break at Test level only if he has done something about his fitness. He must look a lot more youthful in the field than he did against England

So that brings us to what Sehwag has been saying for many years, even when he was getting runs by the ton as an opener: "I would like to bat in the middle order." It's a desire that he seems to have held forever as a Test batsman. I have held the view that for a natural middle-order batsman, he served India amazingly well as an opener when they desperately needed one, so how about granting him that wish before his career finishes?

If for no other reason, at least because there is a chance of an opening for him in the middle order. With India strongly committing towards youth, an experienced batsman with the cheek needed for that position, where you often have to bat with tailenders towards the end of an innings, may be able to add some value to the team. Sehwag could play the kind of innings VVS did for India in Tests.

Of course there is a possibility that he may find batting down the order after 170 innings at the top not so easy after all, but you cannot deny that this is a tempting idea, one you would like to see tried before he is finally let go.

Having said all this, here is what's really important. When Sehwag eventually arrives on the public stage to play in those India A matches, he must look like a player a selector would want to give that opportunity to. It was embarrassing, to say the least, to see in last year's home series against England, balls edged by batsmen hit various parts of Sehwag's body before he could react at slip. That was a serious fitness issue and it worried me more than his passage of low scores. Sehwag deserves another break at Test level only if he has done something about his fitness. He must look a lot more youthful in the field than he did the last time.

The new Indian team under MS Dhoni is big on fitness. We have seen the difference that has made to India's performance lately. The days where only skill mattered in Indian cricket seem to have gone.

If Sehwag wants another crack, he must know times have changed and there can be room only for a fit Sehwag.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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